Darkness

Guard yourself against the secret enemy, for in the moment of embarrassment he will cut you down like the potter’s steel. Thiruvalluvar, The Kural

Shalini Mishra was on her last lap. She barreled down the track of the Lokhandwalla Complex Joggers Park, arms moving jerkily, pink and white Reeboks flashing in the early morning light, breasts shaking inside the kameez. Even though the air was cool, dark patches of sweat bloomed under her arms and her fleshy face was flushed. Her doctor had recommended walking to control her weight. She had taken it up with her usual enthusiasm. Every morning she jotted down on a magnetic pad stuck to the fridge the number of laps she had done and her timing. She boasted to Ashok that when she started she couldn’t complete a single lap; now she could do six.

As she came around the final bend she saw Mrs Luthra, about 25 meters in front, hobbling determinedly towards the finish line. Shalini’s eyes narrowed; she picked up her pace. Her curiously shaped lips, their protuberance so reminiscent of an ancient Roman Senator they bordered on the ludicrous, curled in contempt. She began to gain on the old lady. But Mrs Luthra surprised Shalini. Perhaps it was the sight of the finish line that galvanized the old lady. Whatever it was, with 15 meters to go, she suddenly increased her pace. And Shalini’s lips uncurled — in surprise. The certain victory suddenly looked uncertain. Eyes widening, she increased her pace. To her relief, she began, once again to gain on the target. But having been surprised once, she was taking no chances. She increased her pace again, and, with only five meters to go, yet again. Gasping now, arms pumping like pistons, she bore down on her prey, her eyes burning holes into Mrs Luthra’s old-woman’s back, round, shapeless. If Shalini had seen herself right then she would have been astonished. She looked positively hateful, possessed; the Roman Senator lips locked in a horrible sneer.

A second later, with less than half a meter to go, Shalini brushed past Mrs Luthra — and came back to herself. That’s how Shalini always thought of it when Darkness left — as coming back to herself. After Mrs Luthra had surprised her with that unexpected turn of pace, she had felt the jolt which was Darkness pushing her aside. It never took over completely. She was just as cognizant of the savage satisfaction that flooded through her as she bore down on Mrs Luthra as Darkness had been. Furthermore, it was she, Shalini, who ordered her arms and legs to move. Darkness never interfered in these matters. Darkness was a specialist — It knew what It did best and stuck to it. It stayed in the background, only occasionally permitting Itself to appear in Shalini’s eyes. But sometimes, It added something of its own. Like just now, just when they had been about to overtake Mrs Luthra, it was Darkness that had made her brush Mrs Luthra. Shalini had had no intention of doing that. The slight lowering of the right shoulder, the upward hooking lift, that was Darkness’ doing. But Darkness knew Shalini. It knew she would enjoy it as much as It did.

After crossing the “finish line,” Darkness had left and Shalini had ‘come to herself’. It was Its way — come suddenly and leave — just as suddenly. She looked at Mrs Luthra who was bent over, gripping her side, trying to recover from her exertions.

“Hello Aunty,” she said gaily.

Mrs Luthra looked up. “Oh Shalini beti (my girl), it’s you.”

“Are you alright Aunty?” asked Shalini mentally giving herself a brownie point for being kind to the elderly.

“Oh, it’s nothing,” said Mrs Luthra. “Just a catch. But beti, you walk so fast!”

“Not really Aunty,” said Shalini, awarding herself another point for modesty. They walked over to a nearby bench, Mrs Luthra still holding her side and wincing.

Shalini couldn’t remember a time when Darkness hadn’t been with her. When she was five, Shalini won the Egg And Spoon Race at school. As she lined up to get her prize from the Chief Guest, she had stuck her tongue out at her classmates and jeered. The Chief Guest had looked bewildered; her KG teacher had pulled her up; later, in the car, her mortified parents had chided her.

Shalini had listened, first in puzzlement, and later, as understanding dawned, patronizingly. It was the first inkling she had that not everyone had a thing like Darkness inside them. At that point she hadn’t named It. Why name something that had always been with her, that felt as natural as an arm or a leg! She couldn’t remember now whether the name had been her idea or Darkness’. It had happened a long time ago. But she learned a valuable lesson that day— Darkness had to be hidden. Now, at 30, she was a master at it. She could look at people she and Darkness detested and warm up their unsuspecting insides with the loveliest of smiles. (It was a happy accident of fate that the Roman Senator lips, that expressed scorn so well, were equally effective at delivering a devastatingly charming smile.)

She directed one at Mrs Luthra now. It had the desired effect. Mrs Luthra smiled back. “I haven’t seen you for a long time,” she said.

Shalini had been hoping Mrs Luthra would say just this. She had just returned from a holiday in Thailand and was bursting to tell people about it. But she held herself in check waiting for people to give her a suitable opening. She didn’t want to look like she was boasting.

“That’s because we weren’t in Bombay Aunty!” she said gaily. “We went abroad.”

“Really? Where?”

“Thailand!”

“Thailand! Wah!” said Mrs Luthra appreciatively. “You must have enjoyed.”

“Yes! I made Ashok take two weeks leave from the bank. His boss didn’t want to let him go.” This was a lie. Ashok’s boss had sanctioned his leave application immediately.

“Why beti?”

“What to say Aunty! He is so important to the bank. They can’t do anything without him. But I told Ashok, I insisted, this time you must put your foot down.”

“You did right beti.” Mrs Luthra dabbed at her face with a handkerchief. She had one of those broad worn faces that put people at ease. “Ashok beta is too nice. People need to rest too. Nowadays, with you young people, it’s all work-work. It was not like that in our time. Prakashji, my hubby, when he was working with Railways, he used to take all leaves: privilege, casual, sick — all!”

Shalini who had no desire to hear about the wonderful doings of the recently departed Mr Luthra briskly brought the conversation back on track. “The second his leave was sanctioned, we bought tickets and left.”

“Must have cost a lot.”

Shalini smiled in a pained way as if the mention of money embarrassed her. Actually it did nothing of the sort. Nothing delighted her more than people acknowledging how rich she was.

Wanting to leave on this high note, Shalini took her leave.

“Working today?” asked Mrs Luthra who belonged to a generation that had expected women to stay at home. But she admired women who worked. She thought Shalini was a firm, no nonsense, independent woman.

“Yes! First day after summer holidays.” Shalini taught at Poppatlal Manekchand International School in Bandra.

She hurried away. She couldn’t wait to tell the teachers about her trip.

When Shalini drove out of Galaxy Heights an hour later, the roads were chok-a-blok with traffic. Employing her usual winner-takes-all style of driving, changing lanes at will, cutting people off, and squeezing her car into the smallest of gaps, she arrived at the school in 35 minutes flat. She didn’t park at the Pay-N-Park opposite the school. She was opposed on principal to paying for anything that could be had for free. She parked the car some distance away and walked back. Outside the main gate she ran into Mrs Shenoy getting out of a large BMW. She was wearing an exquisite grey Jamdani that Shalini estimated couldn’t have cost less than Rs 25,000. Her husband was the Chairman of the largest private sector bank in the country.

“Hello Shalini,” said Mrs Shenoy as the BMW pulled away, its powerful engine sounding like a bag of coins being shaken.

“Hello ma’am,” said Shalini. There was a fawning note to her voice that would have surprised Mrs Luthra. Three years ago, when Shalini joined the school, Mrs Shenoy had invited her and Ashok to her home, an opulent 5BHK in Bella Havana on Pali Hill. Standing on a Persian silk carpet the size of a badminton court and gazing at Jatin Das and Souza originals on the walls, Shalini had been dazzled. Anxious to curry favor with her hostess, all through lunch, while Ashok and Mr Shenoy had talked about the latest banking scandal, she had raved about the flat and complimented Mrs Shenoy on her exquisite taste.

Returning home, Ashok had mildly suggested that Shalini had overdone it. “It sounded like you were flattering her.”

Shalini had flared up. “I don’t know what you mean. I was only complimenting her.”

“Yes, but you went on and on — even when she tried to change the subject.”

“Nonsense.” Shalini’s Roman Senator lips took on a stubborn droop that made her look like Nero having a bad day.

Shalini had been furious with Ashok. She’d done it all for him. It was important to cultivate people like the Shenoys. They could be useful for his career. Really! He could be so ungrateful. To punish him, she had not spoken to him until he apologized — twice! But it couldn’t be denied that there had been no more invitations from Mrs Shenoy.

Shalini decided this fortuitous meeting could be used to mend fences. If Mrs Shenoy were to bring up the subject of holidays she would mention Thailand, which could result in a long, satisfying conversation that would let Mrs Shenoy know that Shalini was like herself, someone affluent who could afford to travel abroad for leisure.

But Mrs Shenoy didn’t bring up the subject of holidays. The assembly hall where they would have to go their separate ways was coming up. Shalini decided she couldn’t possibly waste this opportunity — she would have to bring it up herself. So as they walked through the gates, she duly asked, “How were your holidays ma’am?”

“Oh, alright,” said Mrs Shenoy. “What about you?”

“Fantastic! Wonderful! Grand!”

“Oh?” said Mrs Shenoy somewhat taken aback at such unbridled enthusiasm to what was a perfectly ordinary question.

“Yes! I went to Thailand!” Was it because Shalini had rehearsed the words so often in her mind that when she finally said them out aloud, they came out sounding false and jarring — even to her?

The falseness registered with the older woman. “That’s nice,” said Mrs Shenoy, her eyelids flickering.

“Oh, it was much more than nice!”

“How wonderful for you,” said Mrs Shenoy sharply. She was gracious and kindly as a rule but she could only be pushed so far.

Others would have faltered. But there was a quality in Shalini, a kind of cussed doggedness, that made her press on. It was the same quality that made her persist with the walking regimen even though she had yet to shed a single pound. She began talking about the wonders of Bangkok. As they drew closer to the main school building, she began to talk faster, wanting to compress as much information as possible in the time left. Unfortunately for Shalini, she had one of those faces that is at its most unattractive when it was excited. Mrs Shenoy began to look increasingly grim.

There was an interruption.

“Priya!” called someone. A matronly, bespectacled woman in a shabby salwaar-kameez and fraying sandals came bustling up, a big grin on her face. It was Mrs Phansalkar.

“Aditi!” cried Mrs Shenoy with obvious relief. The women hugged.

“Hi Shalini!” said Mrs Phansalkar touching Shalini on the shoulder. She was a jovial, kindly woman. 25 years ago her husband had died leaving her with two small children. With great courage and optimism, on the modest salary of a teacher, she had brought them up and successfully launched them.

Mrs Phansalkar’s sterling qualities however carried no weight with Shalini who bitterly resented the interruption. She nodded tersely and resumed her monologue. The trio reached the main building. Shalini reached the door first. She pushed it open, stepped in, turned, and held it open for Mrs Shenoy who was next in line.

“Thank you,” said Mrs Shenoy stepping in.

Intent on completing what she was saying (she was narrating an amusing incident at the Grand Palace in Bangkok,) Shalini let go the door to follow her. The door was one of those heavy glass and steel affairs controlled by a spring loaded closer. It swung shut with great force, hitting Mrs Phansalkar, who had been following behind Mrs Shenoy, squarely in the face.

There followed one of those awful moments where everything stops. Shalini and Mrs Shenoy looked at Mrs Phansalkar who was looking at them through the glass like a small wounded animal. No one said anything because there was nothing to say because everything had been said.

Shalini was the first to move. She pulled the door open.

“Sorry! Sorry! So sorry!” she yelped.

Mrs Phansalkar entered unsteadily. “That’s alright,” she said, her voice trembling.

“Are you hurt Aditi?” asked Mrs Shenoy.

“I don’t think so.”

“So idiotic of me! I wasn’t thinking!” babbled Shalini. But even as she spoke, she felt Darkness stir. It had sensed prey.

Mrs. Phansalkar raised her hand to stem the flow of apologies. “It’s quite alright, really.”

“You’re hurt!” exclaimed Shalini. It was true. A large bruise had appeared on Mrs Phansalkar’s forehead. Shalini stared avidly at it. So did Darkness.

“Am I?” Mrs Phansalkar raised her hand tremulously and touched the swelling.

“Oh, my God! I feel terrible!” cried Shalini. But Darkness — It had taken over now — wasn’t sorry at all. On the contrary It was drinking it all in: the bruise, the dazed woman. Mrs Phansalkar looked at Shalini, perhaps to reassure her that really she was quite alright and there was no need for a fuss. But the words died in her throat. She looked away quickly but not before Shalini saw the horror in her face.

“I think I had better sit down,” Mrs Phansalkar said tremulously. “I’m feeling dizzy.”

Darkness exulted. “She saw me!”

“Watchman!” shouted Mrs Shenoy, waving her arm. “Bring a chair.”

A chair was brought. Mrs Phansalkar sat down. Someone brought a glass of water.

“Are you feeling better?” asked Darkness in Shalini’s voice.

“Yes, I think so,” said Mrs Phansalkar.

“Oh, I’m so relieved.”

Darkness made Shalini reach out and pat Mrs Phansalkar’s hand. “I feel terrible, just terrible,” said Darkness toying with her.

Tentatively, very tentatively, Mrs Phansalkar looked up. She looked into Shalini’s eyes and all she saw was concern. Relieved, she began to look away then stopped. Her spine jolted in shock. There it was again, no doubt about it this time, something, that thing, peeping at her from behind Shalini’s eyes.

As a rationalist, Mrs Phansalkar was familiar with all the arguments that favored materialism and ridiculed non-materialistic concepts such as ghosts. Now, not with her mind but with her muscles and her nerves, she knew those arguments were wrong. Ghosts existed. The soul — something else she was inclined to disparage — existed too and it mattered, oh, how it mattered! She knew this now, and no argument would ever convince her otherwise because, though she had no proof of the soul’s existence, she had seen what the absence of soul looked like, and felt like, and smelled like, and tasted like, in Shalini’s eyes.

Mrs Shenoy of course had seen none of this. But she had fine instincts. She could see her friend was upset and she sensed it had something to do with Shalini. So now she turned to her. “Thank you Shalini,” she said briskly. “We can manage. You should go; you’ll be late for class.”

But Darkness wanted to stay. It wasn’t done. It had got its hook into Mrs Phansalkar; now It wanted to twist it. Darkness made Shalini protest. “How can I go? This is all my fault. I should do something. Let me — .”

“No!” said Mrs Shenoy firmly.

And Darkness retreated. Instantly. It recognized strength as quickly as It sensed weakness. And It knew — instinctively — that It had to hide from strength.

“ You’re right,” said Shalini. “My class is waiting; I should go. Once again, I’m so sorry, so — .”

“Goodbye!” said Mrs Shenoy.

“See you later,” mumbled Shalini but Mrs Shenoy had already turned her back. From the ‘set’ of it, Shalini knew that she could kiss her hopes of another invitation to Bella Havana good bye.

Shalini had three classes, non-stop, after assembly. It was almost one when she entered the staff room with a gay hello. She hoped someone would ask about her holidays. But no one did. Mrs Bhargav, whose cubicle was next to hers, smiled and waved. The others merely nodded. Disappointed, Shalini sat down and booted up the computer.

At one, the bell rang and everyone pulled out their tiffin carriers. They left their cubicles and gathered around the common table.

Shalini waited. Surely someone would bring up the subject of holidays now!

“What did you get?” Mrs Peerbhoy asked Mrs Kumar who was unstacking the bowls of her tiffin carrier.

“Simla mirch (Bell pepper) stuffed with potato,” said Mrs Kumar. “Try some.”

Mrs Peerbhoy, a well-preserved Parsee, with hair cut daringly short, hoicked a simla mirch out and bit into it. “Marvelous!” she pronounced.

“My daughter-in-law made it. What did you bring?

“Dhansaak.”

“I love dhansaak.

“Then have some no! Why are you waiting?”

“Yes, why are you waiting Meera?” said Mrs Guha reaching across the table and helping herself to some.

Mrs Kumar shook her head. “You’re quite shameless Jasmine.”

Shalini lifted the lid off her carrier. She made a face. “My maid made bhendi. Would anyone like some?”

Shalini’s offer hung awkwardly in the air.

“I’ll have some,” said Mrs Bhargav. “I love bhendi.”

Soon the staff room was filled with the sound of clinking cutlery and conversation. Shalini kept hoping someone would mention the holidays, but the discussion, having landed on the juicy topic of the new reports and procedures, became stuck there.

“It’s almost like a conspiracy to stop me from talking about my trip,” she thought resentfully.

“I’ll tell you what it all boils down to,” said Mrs Peerbhoy. “More work but no increment.”

Mrs Guha guffawed. “Why do you need more money?” Mrs Peerbhoy’s husband was a wealthy industrialist.

“Arre pori, it’s the principle of the thing! More work, more money. Correct no Meera?”

“It’s all this accreditation nonsense,” said Mrs Kumar. The school had recently switched to the UK’s matriculation system.

“As if we need a stamp of approval from the British,” said Mrs Guha. “We fought for Independence for this?”

‘Hear, hear,” said Mrs Peerbhoy.

Shalini bit her lips in frustration. Then, with five minutes left for the bell, Mrs Guha asked Mr Uppal about his holidays. Had he gone to Mahabaleshwar as he’d planned?

“At last!” thought Shalini brightening.

“Yes, yes,” said Mr Uppal, the lone man in the staff room. As a result of this severe gender imbalance, he was frequently the target of much good-natured bullying.

“How was it?”

Mr Uppal opened his mouth to reply but Mrs Peerbhoy was quicker. “Mahabaleshwar? You went there?” Mr Uppal nodded and opened his mouth but, again, Mrs Peerbhoy was quicker. “Marvelous place. A cousin of mine owns a hotel there. Where did you stay?”

“Evershine Resorts.”

“No, that’s not it. My cousin’s hotel’s name is not that.” Mrs Peerbhoy snapped her fingers, trying to remember.

Shalini, conscious of time slipping away and the impending end of lunch hour, thought to herself, “Oh God! I wish she would let him finish.”

Mrs Peerbhoy stopped snapping her fingers. “I can’t recollect the name. It’s an old bungalow converted into a hotel. Did you see a hotel like that?”

“Evershine is a converted bungalow,” said Mr Uppal.

“Yes, but my cousin would never name his hotel Evershine. What kind of name is that! Only a Gujju would name a hotel Evershine.”

“I don’t think the management of our hotel was Gujarati,” said Mr Uppal doubtfully. “They served non-veg.”

“Then it couldn’t have been Gujju,” said Mrs Kumar. “Gujju hotels serve only veg.”

“My cousin’s bungalow is on a steep hill,” said Mrs Peerbhoy. “With a tree in the front yard.”

“Really Gulnar!” said Mrs Guha. “You and your cousin’s bungalow. For your information, every bungalow in Mahabaleshwar is on a hill. Leave the poor man alone.” She patted Mr Uppal on the arm. “Go ahead Mr Uppal. Tell us about your holiday.”

Mrs Peerbhoy gave a wonderful, throaty chuckle. “Sorry, sorry!”

Mr Uppal launched into a meandering description of his holiday. As Shalini waited despairingly for him to finish, he talked ploddingly about a Chinese restaurant that he “would have no hesitation recommending.”

“Really! So good? What was the name again?”

Mr Uppal opened his mouth. Shalini could bear it no longer. There was only one minute left on the clock. “I went to Thailand,” she said.

Everyone thought she had tried to show up Mr Uppal.

Shalini, who could read this in their faces, pressed on regardless, forcing herself to talk gaily about the Floating Market, and after that, the Canal Cruise. But the effort of making conversation to a room full of faces with deadpan expressions, without the occasional interjection, head nod, or smile, was too much, even for Shalini, and, midway through a description of Wat Phra Kaew, she lost the thread of her thoughts and ground to a halt.

The worst of it was that no one said anything. Mrs Peerbhoy touched her hair; Mr Uppal rubbed his knuckles; Mrs stared at the swirly Formica veneer on the table. There’s no telling how long the silence would have lasted but thankfully, the electric bell in the corridor came to their rescue, clattering, announcing the end of lunch hour.

Everyone stirred as if they had been released from a spell.

“Well anyway,” said Shalini laughing nervously, “Ashok and I had a great time. Really, that’s all I wanted to say.”

“That’s wonderful,” said Mrs Kumar dryly and began to stack her bowls.

“I must be going,” murmured Mrs Guha getting up. “I have have three classes, non-stop.”

“Me too,” said Mrs Peerbhoy jumping up as if she feared being left behind.

They stowed their tiffin carriers under their tables, picked up their books, and left.

Fighting tears, Shalini began stacking her bowls. “They’re just jealous,” she thought resentfully. “They didn’t go anywhere and I did.”

But she knew this was nonsense.

Mrs Bhargav, who did not have a class, was still in the room. “I’ve always wanted to go to Thailand,” she said quietly. She liked Shalini. She saw her faults and surmised the insecurities they sprang from. “You’re so lucky that you can afford to go.”

Though this was precisely the response Shalini had yearned for, it did not satisfy her because it was Mrs Bhargav expressing it and not one of the others. Shalini despised Mrs Bhargav for the same reason she despised Mrs Phansalkar: they were both poor. They worked because they needed the money. What Shalini wanted most was to be admitted into the charmed circles inhabited by the Peerbhoys, Guhas, Kumars, and Shenoys of this world, women with rich husbands, women who didn’t need to work but did it anyway because they were bored at home or because they liked teaching.

At four, everyone was back. They visited the toilet at the back of the room to freshen up. Now they were waiting for the bell to ring so they could leave. Mrs Bhargav poked her head over the partition between the cubicles. “Shalini! Can you drop me at Meherwans? I have to pick up some patties for tea.” Meherwans was the old Irani bakery near Andheri Station. Shalini used to shop there too but after Ashok’s promotion she had stopped because she felt it was below her dignity.

“She would shop there,” she thought contemptuously looking up at Mrs Bhargav’s mild, mousy face. But all she said was “Sure.”

“Oh, thank you. What a relief! I wouldn’t have asked. It’s just that I sprained my knee the other day and getting on and off the bus is difficult.”

Shalini smiled gaily as if all was right with the world and she only wished Mrs Bhargav the best.

The bell rang. They went down together and walked out the gate. Mrs Bhargav started to cross the road to the Pay-N-Park.

“Where are you going?” asked Shalini.

Mrs Bhargav pointed to the Pay-N-Park. “Isn’t your car parked there?”

“I never park there. Why should I pay 50 rupees for parking!” Shalini pointed down the road. “I parked around the corner.”

Mrs Bhargav blanched. Her knee was hurting and it was at least 200 hundred meters to the corner. For a moment she considered telling Shalini that she had changed her mind and she would take the bus after all. But she didn’t; she didn’t want to seem ungrateful.

They began walking. Shalini set a brisk pace. Mrs Bhargav quickly fell back. Shalini, brooding over the events of the day, did not notice until Mrs Bhargav had fallen 10 or 15 meters behind. Then she stopped and waited impatiently for her to catch up. “We should hurry,” she said. “I don’t want to get caught in the traffic.”

‘Yes, yes,” said Mrs Bhargav, her face flushed. “So sorry!”

They resumed walking. Shalini watched Mrs Bhargav out of the corner of her eye. While waiting for her to catch up Shalini had noticed the limp. She vaguely recalled that Mrs Bhargav had said something about her knee…something about spraining it. However she seemed to be keeping up now. And she wasn’t limping. Shalini increased her pace slightly. Mrs Bhargav increased her pace too, but, after a few steps, she began limping. Imperceptible at first, it quickly became pronounced.

Shalini’s eyes narrowed; the Roman Senator lips curled; Darkness woke up. She felt the familiar jolt that as It took over.

After a few steps, Darkness increased the pace. Just a little. It knew that if It went too fast too quickly, the prey would give up and all the fun would be taken out. It wanted the prey to keep trying. That would maximize its pain. Pain was what Darkness craved.

Mrs Bhargav hesitated. Darkness held its breath. Had It made a mistake? Then Mrs Bhargav increased her pace! Darkness felt the satisfaction of the hunter who sees the hesitant prey step into the snare. The game was on! Darkness let itself into Shalini’s eyes. There was no risk of detection. Mrs Bhargav was looking down, focusing on keeping up with Shalini.

Darkness maintained the same pace for a 50 meters then increased it again. Would the prey keep up? To It’s gratification, the prey increased its pace too, though, by now, the limp had become a desperate, staggering lurch.

“I’m parked around the corner,” murmured Darkness encouragingly.

“Oh, good,” gasped Mrs Bhargav, her face grey with pain.

But Darkness had lied. The car wasn’t around the corner but another 50 meters away from it. ‘There it is,” Darkness said gaily.

It was too much for Mrs Bhargav. Darkness watched her give up. Her shoulders slumped. Darkness drank in her pain. It was like a drug. The last time Darkness had been forced to retreat just as It was beginning to enjoy itself. But here, now, there was no Mrs Shenoy to stop It. It could drink its fill.

Darkness and Shalini were one now. It happened only rarely, this union. There was always someone or something that got in the way. But now it was just the prey and them. In the final meters, Shalini opened up her shoulders and charged. She opened the door and got in. Together she and Darkness watched Mrs Bhargav. She was walking very slowly now, her face cadaverous with pain.

When she was just a meter or two from the car, Mrs Bhargav looked up. Through the obscuring chiaroscuro of sky and trees reflected off the windshield, she thought she saw Shalini leering malevolently — like a wild animal. Then she thought it was someone else. Except it wasn’t. It was Shalini but it also wasn’t. Her face looked blurred…like someone else’s face was superimposed on Shalini’s. But superimposition implies a second image applied from above. This wasn’t at all like that. The new face appeared to be “boiling up” from below, like Shalini’s face was the surface of a lake, and the new face, rising up, almost breaking through before sinking back, was like a terrible fish that lived in the depths.

Shalini stretched to unlock the passenger side door. Mrs Bhargav was seized with an irresistible urge to run. She almost did, but then, as Shalini leaned forward a little more, her face came into view, from behind the reflections off the windshield, and…there was only the familiar round face.

Feeling foolish, Mrs Bhargav got in. She did it slowly, easing herself into the seat, trying not to bend the bad leg. Shalini waited for her to settle herself in then gunned the engine and took off. Mrs Bhargav was still uneasy but all the way to Meherwans, Shalini talked so gaily, jumping from topic to topic with a kind of giddy abandon as if she were pleasantly drunk that Mrs Bhargav forgot what she thought she’d seen.

When they got to Meherwans, there was an empty space in front of the bakery. “Oh good,” said Shalini pulling into it. “You won’t have to walk.” But the damage had been done. Shalini and Darkness (It had not gone away; It was still there, hiding in the corners of her eyes) made this out from the labored way Mrs Bhargav got out, wincing as she bent her bad leg to swing it out of the car, then the way she stood on the pavement, swaying slightly, unable to twist, having to awkwardly turn her whole body to swing the door shut.

“Bye,” said Shalini leaning towards the passenger window and looking up. Darkness played with the idea of showing Itself again —but decided against it. It was sated. Besides, it would not do to frighten this new prey away completely. It wanted to keep it for another day. Before It retreated, It made Shalini wave.

Mrs Bhargav waved back.

Shalini pulled away. As she eased the car into the traffic, she peeked into her side mirror. Mrs Bhargav was hobbling across the pavement, lurching from side to side like…exactly like Charlie Chaplin after he’d been bunged on the head. She looked comical. Shalini smiled and sped away musing on the day’s events. It was too bad about Mrs Shenoy, and what happened later in the staff room but really, she couldn’t complain. Fate had served up a delicious recompense for her tribulations. She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel and began humming a tune.

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How I Almost Lost My Son

My son and I got off the train at Churchgate.  People swirled about us rushing for the exit.  We were going to see a movie at Sterling.  Joshua was jumping up and down with excitement.  His mother had dressed him in his ‘fancy clothes’: t-shirt with Walt Disney character, baggy blue jeans, and sneakers my sister had sent from Singapore.  I liked seeing him like that. I couldn’t afford to buy him fancy toys or take his mother and him out to expensive restaurants.  Movies, a relatively cheap entertainment option was a win-win for us both.  I’d buy us lower stall tickets—in those days, I’m talking about the mid-90s—a lower stall ticket at Sterling, the best cinema hall in Bombay (centrally air-conditioned!) cost just Rs. 35.  In the interval, I’d buy him a bag of popcorn and a Pepsi.  Simple things but he’d be over the moon with happiness.

Heading to the exit, we passed the toilets.  I suddenly had a terrible urge to pee.  But I didn’t want to take him inside with me. Railway station toilets are black holes.  Wet, stinking cesspools. Churchgate’s toilets are better than those in some of the smaller stations but they’re still pretty bad.  As if to prove my point, just then the door to the toilet opened releasing an olfactory blast of piss and phenol.  I glimpsed the dank, dark interior before the door shut.

Public Loo

I stood uncertainly wondering what to do. The cavernous hall with its polished kota stone floor echoed with announcements on the PA system and the shuffling footsteps of hundreds of commuters. The flow of people was like a river that split smoothly when it reached Joshua and me and just as smoothly joined up again beyond us.  I noticed a woman standing close by.  Early 60s, thinning grey hair gathered neatly in a bun, her sari worn the old-fashioned Maharashtrian way.  On her feet were gilt sandals with pointy heels. The heels caught my eye. Flat heels would have gone with the conservative sari and the hair in the grandmotherly bun.  But pointy heels?  They struck a discordant note.

She noticed me looking at her and she smiled sympathetically as if she understood my quandary.  I smiled back. The thought crossed my mind that I could leave Joshua with her while I used the toilet. She looked respectable and dependable and my bladder was bursting. It would just be a minute I told myself.  There’s no risk I told myself.  Her smile widened. It was as if she were reading my thoughts and wanted to help them along.

One second later and the scene changed.  Or rather, the woman had changed.  Or rather, it was as if scales had fallen from my eyes because she was just the same.  I was just seeing her in a different way.  A second ago she’d been a respectable, kindly lady who wanted to be helpful.  Now she was something else altogether. Something predatory.  Maybe it was the smile.  And when it widened like that…

I felt a chill up my spine.  My gut was whispering in terror that the last thing I should be thinking of doing was leaving Joshua with her. At that moment I knew that if I had done what I had been contemplating doing a second or two earlier, I would have never seen him again.  She would have disappeared with him.  Grasping Joshua’s hand tightly—never had it felt so small—I turned away and walked quickly towards the exit.  My head was whirling.  I looked back.  She was following us!  And still smiling!  How could someone appear kindly and cruel at the same time?

Out of the swirling crowd of commuters, someone stepped out.  A hand gripped my arm hard.  Why not, I thought.  If a scary old woman could be pursuing us in broad daylight in the midst of hundreds of people, why couldn’t a complete stranger pop out of the crowd and grab my hand.  The whole experience was taking on a heavy, dream-like quality.  The shuffling footsteps, the announcements, sounded muffled as if something had come between the world and us.

The man was angry.  His anger brought me back to reality.  Why was he angry?  I became alarmed.  Was he an accomplice of the old woman?  “She’s after your boy,” he said pointing at the woman. “There are many people like her.”  His voice was thick with rage.  I thought he would spit at her, he was that angry.  He was no accomplice.

The old woman had stopped a few feet away.  The scary thing was she wasn’t at all fazed.  She stood her ground, placid, the ghost of a smile still on her face.

I thanked the man and kept walking. “Be careful,” he shouted after me.  It was a noble thing to do. Most people would have walked away.  Not my business would have been the common reaction.  As we walked out the terminus, I looked back.  She was following us.  I increased the pace.  Joshua trotted to keep up.

My head was whirling with thoughts.  I had read stories in the papers of children being kidnapped.  Sometimes it happened in broad daylight.  I may have wondered–idly–about that.  How could that happen?  In broad daylight?  With people around?  Now I knew how it could happen.

Outside the station was a large store. It was always crowded with customers.  I thought we’d be safe inside.  We walked in.  I held my breath.  Would she follow us?  Would she have the chutzpah to follow us into the store.  I had almost decided that if she did, I would make a scene.  I would call for the manager.  But she stopped outside!  She stood on the pavement in the bright sunlight looking this way and that.

A part of me–the rational part that didn’t believe there were monsters under the bed about to snap at one’s heels–thought the whole incident ridiculous. All around us were people walking and talking, eating, shopping, doing what they do in Churchgate on a Saturday afternoon.  And here I was, skulking in a store, hiding from an old woman who looked like everyone’s idea of a kindly grandmother.  But facts were facts.  She had followed us out of the station.  She was standing outside.  A stranger had been alarmed enough to reach out and warn me.  She was half my size. I could have taken her apart.  But her poise and confidence were unnerving.  She knew what she was doing; she was ready for any eventuality.

I burrowed deeper into the store.  I dawdled; I bought a birthday card I didn’t need.  But it was worth it.  As the cashier rang up the sale, I peered out.  The old lady was nowhere in sight.  I bundled Joshua into a taxi.  “Sterling!” I shouted.  “Quickly!”  The driver gunned the motor and we were off.

Settling back in the seat, I thought about the old lady.  I thought about what-might-have-been.  If I’d left Joshua with her, how would she have taken him away?  It would not have been difficult.  She would have led him away.  She would have hailed a taxi.  It would have taken less than a minute.  All the time she would have been telling him, don’t worry, your father’s behind us, he will come.  She would have been smiling that smile!  And he would have been taken in.  Children are the easiest thing in the world to fool.

20 years have passed but I still think of that day.  I think of the old lady–how she wore the sari in the old-fashioned, conservative grandmotherly way; how she’d tied her grey hair in a grandmotherly bun.  Of course it was all planned.  The way she looked was designed to inspire confident and trust in strangers.  And a railway station is the perfect place to wait for prey if you’re in the business of kidnapping children.  Plenty of bewildered visitors from outside the city to prey on.  Easy for people’s attention to stray; easy to distract someone so a child is left unattended for a few seconds.

Only the gilt sandals with heels had given her away.  If it had not been for that slight flaw in the disguise, she might have succeeded.  If she’d been wearing plain, flat sandals, I would probably have left Joshua with her.

Scary to think about!  Plain sandals versus gilt sandals.  That was all it took to decide the path several lives took from that day on.

Gilt sandals: my sixth sense, alerted, warned me, and today I have the luxury of thinking about the what-might-have-been.

Dowdy sandals: my sixth sense would not have been alerted.  I would have left Joshua with her and today I would be living everyday with the consequence of what I did.  Or, I might have killed myself years ago from guilt and remorse.  For I would have walked out of the toilet straight into the special hell reserved for parents who have lost their children young and don’t know what has become of them.  Are they alive or dead?  How are they doing?  The parents writhe and twist endlessly in the acid of not knowing.  And of knowing the odds that they are happy are minuscule.

And Joshua?  What would have been his lot?  Like most Indians I’ve heard the stories about gangs kidnapping small children, taking them to small towns and cities in other states, and putting them to work, begging for alms.  I know the stories are true because I’ve seen the children begging on railway platforms and traffic signals.

The gangs have been around for a long time.  They are organized; they have access to certain skills that are like dark arts.

 

Child Beggar

Child Beggar

‘A Child In The Street, New Delhi’ by Ludovic Landry (https://www.flickr.com/photos/ludophoto/3375374944/in/photolist-69gFnJ-5GTqNm-4mroXj-4KSNFZ-4Ejtk2-C6V8m-4RqZL2-aXBaC8-84g64f-aaKtmd-9pGGMP-4mrouU-cm7Dhj-96TFDf-cHmLx7-4D2Le9-k9kka-bbEajH-biwMjk-biwL6t-9pbQs-kG2NjT-5VTfdd-9fRUNY-4AqK8p-ebukc7-7JdaGN-f1SRK/)

In the old days, to make the children more pitiable and therefore more likely to arouse sympathy, the kidnappers would deliberately deform them.  They would twist arms, legs, and backs, contorting them into impossible shapes.  (That was why the gangs preferred young children.  Their soft, pliant bones could be twisted and bent.)

I remember this one beggar.  His trunk and limbs had been forced long ago into an unnatural impossible arabesque shape.  His withered legs were knotted about his hips.  His back had been curved backwards so it looked like the back of his head was permanently striving to touch the heels of his feet.  His right arm was a horrible work of art: permanently raised, the palm lying open on the top of his head like a tray—a permanent gesture of supplication.  He moved in a wild seesaw motion.  He would tip himself forward, then back, then forward again.  As he tipped forward the second time, he would use his good arm–the one that wasn’t raised–to leverage the accumulated forward momentum to propel himself forward.  As he shuffled along in this grotesque way, like a mobile see-saw, people would stop to place a coin or two in the open palm on the top of his head, whereupon he would tip himself forward so that the coins would slip from his palm, slide down his face, and fall with a clink into a dented steel vessel tied around his neck for just this purpose.

It has been many years since I saw him.  Whose child had he been?  Did he remember his parents?  When I saw him he was a grown man, no longer a boy.  His body had grown into adulthood; the bones becoming harder and thicker but they could not break out of the shape they had been forced into.  He was encased inside an inescapable prison.

Times have changed and so have people.  Nowadays you don’t see children deformed like that.  We like to think we’ve become better, kinder people.  And to a certain degree it’s true.  Deformed beggars excite horror now rather than pity.  People turn away when they see it.  We feel guilty but we also feel like we’re being tricked.  So, mixed with the new softness is a new hardness.

Earlier generations marched to a different beat.  Their sensibilities were different.  They gave money to deformed beggars for the same reason they went to see animals performing tricks in circuses.  Mixed up in their emotions was an element of relief, of good cheer.  The predominant emotion of people watching a Himalayan black bear dancing clumsily on his hind feet, or a Kutchi trick horse being forced to “kneel,” or tigers being made to jump through hoops of fire, or dogs to stand on their hind legs, is relief.  The unspoken thought of people giving money to a deformed beggar is, “that could have been me but for the grace of God.”

 

On Cruelty

Hindustan Times

In February, 2014, the University Grants Commission has written to universities and colleges to implement its 2011 guidelines to end dissection (sic) and experiments on animals in zoology and life sciences courses.  …dissections should only be done by professors for demonstration and be made optional for post-graduate students.


The Frogs

How were the frogs that we were going to dissect the next day delivered to the Bio lab at The DAV Higher Secondary School, Gopalapuram, Chennai?  We didn’t know and we didn’t care.  For us the frogs were just a means to an end—earning high marks, maybe even a Distinction in the HSC Examination.  It was 1975.  We were 11th Standard students of the science stream—the cream of the student population.  (The less fortunate opted for the commerce stream.  Those even lower were thrown into Arts.)  We were at the top of the pyramid.  The best teachers were assigned to teach us.  We attended special classes outside regular school hours.  Kalia, the principal never missed an opportunity to remind us that the reputation of the school rested on our shoulders.

We didn’t know how David Sir, the Bio teacher, prepared the frogs for dissection.  When we entered the lab, the flat stainless steel trays on which dissections were performed were always already laid out on the long lab tables.  David Sir would shuffle slowly down the aisle in his goofy, splay-footed manner, a jute sack banging against his knees.  He’d stop at each table, reach into the sack, a gentle, genial, Dravidian Santa Claus, and hand a chloroformed frog to the student.  It was our job to pin the frogs to the bed of wax at the bottom of each tray.  These frogs weren’t the diminutive ones you see in the garden after the rains.  They were green, yellow-white giants measuring 10” or more when fully stretched.  Four pins were required to pin each frog down.  We’d lay the frogs on their backs on the bed of wax and pull their limbs out and at an angle as far as they would stretch.  Then we’d run the pins through the limbs into the soft wax to hold them down.

Adapted from Leonardo's  Vitruvian Man

Adapted from Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man

One of the first things we learned was to not run the pins through the webbed skin of the hands and feet because it was too thin to hold the frog.  All it took was a jerk or two and the skin would tear releasing the frog.  The correct technique was to run the pin through the joint just above the hands and feet where the muscle and bone provided for a more secure hold.

Once we were done, the frogs would be on their backs, on the wax, stretched as far as they could be.  That was the second thing we learned—the frogs had to be stretched as far as they could be.  That had the effect of tightening the skin of the abdomen permitting a clean, straight first cut.  When done right, all it took was a poke with the scissors.  Then all the student had to do was run the scissors up to the crest of the lower jaw.  The skin would come apart neatly, like paper, easily separating from the underlying muscle.

One day David Sir was running late.  When we entered the hot, sunny lab, he was still in the process of chloroforming the frogs.   Slowly he stuck his hand into a floppy gunny sack at his feet and pulled out a frog.  Sir David’s large hand almost entirely covered it.  The head and the forelimbs emerged from between his index finger and thumb while the long rear limbs dangled below his hand.  The frog rested its forelimbs on Sir David’s thumb and goggled at us.  It squirmed about trying to break free, the webbed forelimbs pushing ineffectually against David Sir’s thumb.  David Sir dropped it into a large bell jar on his table.  After he’d dropped in a dozen or more, he closed the mouth of the gunny sack.  “We don’t want them to escape,” he said in his wheezy, asthmatic voice.  Then he slid open the drawer and pulled out a dark brown glass bottle of chloroform.  Twisting off the cap, he carefully poured a little on a cotton rag and quickly dropped it into the bell jar, immediately closing its mouth with the heavy glass stopper.

At first nothing happened.  The frogs were hunkered down at the bottom, eyes bright, throats working.  One’s hind foot was in another one’s face but it didn’t seem to notice.  Then the frog next to the rag began twitching.  It tried to get away, clambering clumsily over its fellows.  Someone laughed.  Smiles broke out.  It was funny—kind of.

Soon they were all frantically trying to get away from the rag as the invisible fumes spread through the jar.  They bumped into each other; they jumped over each other.  We were laughing and hooting and thumping each other.  One of the frog’s leaped up, its webbed feet splayed wide as it desperately tried to get a grip on the glass walls of the jar.  But the glass was too smooth.  It slid down slowly and landed on another frog that was on its back convulsing.  We howled, holding our stomachs, tears streaming from our eyes.  Though in dire straits, their comic-ugly faces were incapable of any expression except for a kind of froggy dignity,  That’s what really got to us, what had us helplessly caught in a paroxysm of laughter: the contrast between their mute, dignified expressions and their undignified frantic attempts to escape the fumes.

Judging the right quantity of chloroform to apply is more art than science.  Too little and the frogs emerged from their stupor in the middle of the dissection.  (Though David Sir knew his stuff, every now and then this still happened.)  On the rare occasions that it did, we welcomed the distraction.  It helped to relieve the tedium of dissection when a student, hunched over the steel tray, intently cutting, slicing, and snipping, would start and give a girlish scream as his frog, hitherto comatose, suddenly came to life and began jerking and straining at the pins.  A wave of laughter would break through the lab.  Invariably someone would imitate the student’s scream and there would be more laughter.

“That’s enough,” David Sir would say but he’d be smiling too so we knew it was alright to keep laughing.  He’d walk briskly over, pour some chloroform on a rag, and clamp it over the frog’s face.  Our noses crinkled at the acrid-sweet smell of the chloroform.  “This is a big frog,” he would say, grinning at the shaking student.  “It needs more chloroform.”  I always felt he was trying to reassure the student that it was a normal thing to react the way he had, and there was nothing for the student to be ashamed off.  Most of us got the message and quieted down.  There were always one or two who didn’t.  “That’s enough,” David Sir would say again not smiling this time.  And the laughter would stop completely.

Even though he always spoke softly and smiled a lot, like all genuinely large men, David Sir was physically intimidating.  He cultivated a Fu-Manchu moustache and sideburns.  It was the fashion then.  He always dressed modestly in white or cream short-sleeved shirts, dark terecot pants and Bata sandals—the kind that used to be known as Quo Vadis.

Too much chloroform was as bad as too little.  It killed the frogs.  Dead frogs were unsuitable for dissection.  We required live, suitably quiescent frogs.  It was important that when they were dissected, their organs be working, their hearts pumping, their lungs inflating and deflating like miniature football bladders, their muscles responsive to electric shocks, so we could prove to David Sir—and six months from now, to the dreaded examiners from the Board—that we knew how to tease blood vessels and nerves away from flesh and connective tissue without tearing them, knew how to neatly label parts, knew the parts of the frog’s various systems: the circulatory, digestive, reproductory, and nervous.

The Scholarship

Every year the school encouraged the best students of the science stream to apply for the National Science Talent Scholarships.  Competition for the prestigious scholarships was fierce.  Winning one carried a lot of weight with admission boards of colleges.  The requirements were stiff.  In addition to a four-hour written test, each candidate had to conduct a scientific experiment and submit a report.

I know now, in retrospect that most of the experiments we did were ‘bad science’.  I don’t judge my classmates and myself too harshly.  It was to be expected.  What were we after all but callow boys pretending to have attained a certain level of knowledge and maturity.  We thought we knew what science was all about.  But really, we knew nothing.  Our idea of science was derived from bad textbooks, bad teachers, and, though we would never admit to it, from bad Hollywood movies.  In our hearts we believed that science was all about masterly people in white lab coats, working methodically, mixing brightly colored chemicals in test tubes, calmly working their way towards hugely important discoveries.  Secretly, each of us believed that he was the next Einstein.

One student decided he was going to manufacture artificial chlorophyll in a test tube.  Our organic chemistry textbook had the formula for chlorophyll—C55H72O5N4Mg.  We told him it was impossible to make chlorophyll this way.  He scoffed.  “What’s the problem da?  I’ll just mix carbon-dioxide and water and nitrogen and Magnesium in a test tube and keep applying heat until I see green stuff at the bottom.”  He did just that one day, pottering about with test tubes and the Bunsen burner for an hour or two before finally giving up.

Another student set out to determine the melting point of cement.  The experiment was pointless; it had no use.  He was just hoping that because it had something to do with cement and cement was associated with engineering his report might help him get admission into a good engineering college.  Every day for a week he spent hours in the chem lab diligently heating a lump of cement with a Bunsen gas burner.  It glowed red and charred emitting a foul smell but it stubbornly refused to melt.

I didn’t know what to do.  One by one, the others got started.  Tendrils of panic started growing in my head.  I resolutely ignored them.  Instinctively, I knew the worst thing would be to give in to it.  Then, one day, apropos of nothing, the idea came to me in a flash.  I would measure the effect of alcohol on a frog’s osmoregulatory mechanism.  This experiment too had no utility whatsoever though I didn’t think so at the time.  In fact I thought it was pretty clever.  It involved ‘osmoregulation,’ a long, scientific-sounding word that I had come across in an A-levels science textbook.  I knew it would look impressive in the title because it was long and sounded complicated.  I was pretty sure it would impress the NSTS Board of Interviewers.

I got the alcohol for the experiment —an eighth of Hercules XXX Rum—from my father’s liquor cabinet.  I scrounged an old syringe from the family doctor.  On the appointed day, I arrived at the Bio lab.  David Sir introduced me to my laboratory subject, a large green and yellow frog.  I diluted the rum in the correct proportion and filled the syringe.  David Sir was holding the frog firmly in one hand.  When I was ready, he pinched the frog’s webbed foot between his thumb and forefinger and pulled so that the white skin of the thigh tightened against the underlying muscle.  I soaked a tuft of cotton wool in rubbing alcohol and wiped a spot on the thigh, placed the needle of the syringe on the spot and pushed.  The skin dimpled under the pressure but didn’t break.

“Push harder,” grunted David Sir.  I pushed harder.  This time the skin broke and the needle went in smoothly.  The frog gave a jerk and kicked and the needle slipped out.  “Do it again,” said David Sir breathing asthmatically through his mustache.  “Wait!  Try the other leg.”

I selected a spot.  David Sir gripped the leg tighter this time and I pushed the needle in deeper.  The frog jerked but the needle held.  I pressed the plunger.  I did this slowly, carefully, deliberately.  For, the moment the needle pierced the frog, something had taken over me.  I began play-acting.  I began imagining I was this calm, mature, scientist, someone noble like in a movie I’d seen.  I pretended I was grave and thoughtful.  After the syringe emptied, I did not hurry; I withdrew the needle slowly.  There was a drop of blood on the skin.  I rubbed the spot gently with cotton wool.  David Sir placed the frog in a cardboard box that he had arranged beforehand.

Every other day I visited the lab.  (David Sir suggested I give the frog a day in-between injections to recover.)  David Sir would pull out the animal from its box and I would inject it.  With each visit I increased the dosage.  By the third visit, the frog no longer jerked and kicked but lay dazed and supine in David Sir’s hand.  “What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I think it’s drunk,” said David Sir smiling gently.

I told the other students.  It was a good story.  News of my inebriated subject spread.  The next time I injected the frog, I had a small audience.  Their presence made me take my play-acting more seriously.  I injected the dazed frog in my gravest, most thoughtful manner.

After a fortnight of tormenting the frog, I analyzed the data, plotted a graph, and wrote a report.  A month later I sat for the written test.  I was not called for an interview.  Two months later I sat for my Boards.  I passed with flying colors (5 Distinctions) and left shortly afterwards for college.

I forgot the frogs.

2014

33 years later they returned.  I don’t remember exactly when.  I may have been sitting in a local train, watching some brain-numbing show on Star World, driving to work, or brushing my teeth.  But I clearly remember how I felt immediately afterwards.  First, a pang of remorse.  Then surprise that something from the distant past, and so inconsequential, could unsettle me.  Then a dim awareness of the enormity of what happened 33 years ago in that hot dusty school came to me.  It was as if a match had flared up in a dark, unvisited corner of my mind.  The germ of a tantalizing question began to form in my brain.  A moment later, the match extinguished; the incipient awareness vanished; and the question died before it could fully form.  Barely missing a beat I carried on with my day.

A few weeks later the memory resurfaced.  Again, the remorse, the dim awareness, and the nagging question that died stillborn.  Over the course of the next month or two, this happened several times.  Each time, the memory stayed longer.  It began returning faster too.  There came a day when the memory didn’t go away.

By then I was fully cognizant of what had gone down in the school.  And the question, the embryonic question had solidified into a drumming accusation, a hot knife constantly twisting in the soft part of my brain.  “How did you do what you did?”

The question fascinated me.  Samuel Pepys, who attended the first meetings of the Fellows of the Royal College of Science that included luminaries such as Newton, Boyle, Darwin, and Bacon admitted he was ‘particularly drawn to experiments involving cats and dogs.’  At these meetings, ‘chickens were choked and fish were gagged.  The members strangled dogs and dissected living cats.’  On one occasion, Pepys wrote gaily, ‘…and so out to Gresham College, and saw a cat killed with the Duke of Florence’s poyson…I saw also an abortive child preserved in spirits of salt.’

Practicing science involves being cruel to animals.  Scientists square their treatment of animals with their conscience by pointing out that science is for the good of humankind.  The argument is a good one when the experiments are conducted for serious purposes such as the development of a life-saving drug or an important discovery.  The same argument becomes weaker when used by cosmetic companies to justify their treatment of animals to find the most marketable perfume or ointment.  And the argument becomes completely untenable, actually irrelevant, for schoolboys conducting dissections to score marks.

Is there a better way to learn science?

It was Bertrand Russell who said that the infliction of cruelty with a good conscience is a delight to moralists.   But Russell is no help; he offers no answers.  Delight?  He approached the issue as a philosopher would: a conundrum to be solved through clever analysis and dialectic.

The issue of cruelty is not an intellectual exercise for me.  I’m a perpetrator.  I inflicted ‘cruelty with a good conscience’ on helpless animals that had done me no wrong.  Their blood is on my hands.   Resolving this has become a matter of sanity.  For you see, the frogs appear to have taken up permanent residence in my head.  They hunker down in the basement of my consciousness, eyes bright, throats working—dumbly eloquent accusers forcing me to look squarely at what I did.

And the evil that went down long ago, in the name of education, was so much darker than what I’ve laid down.  (Once you start exploring, all kinds of dark side roads open up.)

Take the matter of their disposal.  After we finished the dissections, after David Sir had reviewed our work and marked us, and after we had left, trudging out, canvas bags slung over our shoulders, what happened to the frogs?  I’m pretty certain David Sir didn’t go from tray to tray in the now empty lab, carefully applying more chloroform to each frog, a tenderly administered coup de grace.  Much easier to imagine him striding between the tables, briskly tipping over the steel trays, and the wet, mutilated bodies sliding, organs spilling, tumbling into a sack.  Much easier to imagine the peon coming later, after school hours, picking up the sack, carrying it out of the school gate, and casually heaving it into a municipal waste bin.  And once you’re there, it’s no stretch to imagine some of the frogs coming out of their chloroform induced stupor into consciousness.  Their eyes would have opened to blackness and what?  The stench of blood?  But it’s all stretch after that.  Impossible to imagine what goes through a frog’s mind, or to describe the emotions they feel.

And what of my experimental subject?  After two weeks of being tortured by me–a teenage Dr. Mengele–what was its fate?  It would have been used for dissection.  That frog really had a hard time of it.

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING MODI

After Robert Vadra’s shady land dealings in Haryana and Rajasthan were exposed, the response of the Gandhi Family has been along expected lines, namely, a deafening silence. Each time they’ve been caught with their hands in the till, this has been their customary response.

This used to work.  There was a time, not so long ago, when members of the Family enjoyed demigod status and many people believed they could do no wrong.  By maintaining a lofty silence, they were able to convince the people that responding to accusations of this kind was somehow beneath their dignity. Others, less gullible, discreetly looked the other way whenever they did something unethical.  It was as if, without a word needing to be said, the Family and the country were locked in an unholy agreement, whereby, from time to time, for the privilege of being ruled by them, the country would allow the Family to make some money on the side.  The country was willing to agree to this bad bargain because, well because, there was no alternative to the Congress.

No more.

There’s an alternative today.  The BJP may not have cleaned up its act entirely.  But they’ve smoothed the rough edges enough so that they are no longer unpalatable to the middle-class.  The lumpen element, the ash-smeared, trishul-wielding fanaticism, the arcane activities such as the shilanyas (consecration of bricks)–these are absent today.

Unfortunately, for the Family, six days ago, the Wall Street Journal published an article detailing Vadra’s shady dealings.  Even that wasn’t enough to smoke the family out from behind its wall of silence.

Then, in the third week of April, Modi brought the case up in a speech.  In his crude, hard-hitting way, he spoke about Vadra, the “10th Standard pass with 1 lakh rupees in his pocket who is worth 300 crores today.”  Modi is a master at mixing facts with allegations and even outright lies.  It is a potent way to discredit opponents.  But in this case he didn’t have to resort to this.  The facts clearly establish that Vadra made money unfairly.

This certainly helped Modi but the same facts were available to the national press.  Yet it wasn’t able to smoke the Family out.  The same facts were available to WSJ.  It wasn’t able to smoke the Family out either.  Yet. a day after Modi made the speech, Priyanka was finally forced to emerge from behind the Family’s wall of hypocritical silence and speak out in her husband’s defense.  How, or maybe more importantly, why is Modi able to breach the Family’s defences?

It’s something to think about. What is it about Modi that has got under the Family’s skin?

How Learning Under Stress Might Have Reduced Fatalities in S. Korea Ferry Disaster

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Fascinating snippet of discussion on CNN today (April 23, 2014).

A guest on a show (sorry, I can’t be more specific–I didn’t note the guest’s name or which show) shared this nugget.  A year ago, Lee Joon-seok, the captain of the South Korean ferry that capsized off the Korean coast last week said in a press conference that he would never do what the captain of the Costa Concordia did.  He probably meant that he would never abandon his ship before all the passengers had been evacuated like Italian captain of the cruise ship did in January, 2012.

But that’s exactly what Lee did last week.  He was one of the first to jump off the stricken ferry.  Dismissing his actions as cowardly would be simplistic.  Though cowardice played a big part, transcripts of conversation between the crew of the ferry and the S.Korean Coast Guard reveal that indecision and the resulting paralysis also played a big part in the tragedy.

A guest on the CNN show said this would not have happened if learning under stress was standard operating procedure in the sea-faring industry as it is in the aviation industry.  He said you may know what to do in an emergency but that’s no guarantee that you will do it when you’re caught up in a situation.  You may be completely certain that you will act in a certain way but when something bad actually happens, something takes over you and drowns out the calm, rational side of you.  This is the side that knows things.  What takes over is older, something from the distant past.  It’s completely amoral and atavistic.  What drives it pure and simple is the urge for self-preservation.

Unless you train frequently to respond to emergencies under stress, there is no way to prevent this atavistic side from overwhelming us in moments of crisis.  That means perfectly simulating as many elements of a crisis as possible and simulating the consequences of doing the wrong thing in a way that connects viscerally with us.  When people learn this way, the knowledge of what to do doesn’t reside in cognitive memory really.  It becomes a part of our nerves and sinews.  That’s the only way to preempt  the atavistic side from taking over.

BAD BOYS, BAD BOYS

Amar and Azam are the bad boys of politics. In the first week of April, Amit Shah asked Jat voters of Muzzafarnagar and adjoining areas to “take revenge when they vote on those who have stolen their respect and hurt their mothers and daughters.”

The Samajwadi Party, never one to be outdone when it comes to playing the communal card responded immediately. Azam Khan, in a speech, said that only Muslim soldiers were martyred at Kargil. He followed this up with ‘women who have consensual sex outside marriage should be hanged’.

The Election Commission (EC) stepped in and wielded its stick. Both were banned from electioneering and asked to explain their actions. Amit Shah response satisfied the EC and he’s been allowed to resume electioneering. Azam Khan refused to answer the EC. Instead he threatened to file an FIR against the EC. Naturally, the EC wasn’t going to stand for it. So, Azam is still in the doghouse.  I feel the SP is the most dangerous party in India today. It really hates the EC. It wants to take the country back to the days of booth capturing, paying for votes, liquor for votes, and all the other bad things that were so much a part of Indian politics until T.N. Seshan cleaned house.

You’ve Come A Long Way Modi Baby

In 2002, after the Gujarat riots had already burned themselves out, Modi gave an interview where he told the reporter, “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” The statement became infamous.  Modi was justifying the riots as a natural, spontaneous response to the tragic Godhra incident.

Flash forward to the present.

Yesterday Modi said in an interview on TV9, “Let the law take its own course.  I am convinced that if there’s even a grain of truth in the allegation, I feel, for India’s bright future and traditions, Modi should be hanged in the town square.  There should be such exemplary punishment that no-one dares commit such a crime for 100 years.  If he has committed a crime, Modi should not be pardoned.  There should be no apology.”

From justifying the riots as a natural, spontaneous response to a horrible act, to now admitting the riots was a crime, is not a large step for most people who have no problem viewing the 2002 riots for what they were.  But it is a giant leap for a man like Modi.

Agusta Westland Bribery Scandal: Smoke and Mirrors Trick By Indian Government

Today’s Indian Express carries an interesting report on the Agusta Westland Helicopter bribery scandal.  The case is being heard in an Italian court.  The prosecutor (Italian) has blamed the CBI for failing to share crucial documents.  What is surprising about this is the CBI and the Indian government are plaintiffs in the case!   One would expect that under the circumstances the government would be doing all it can to help the prosecution’s case.  The Italian prosecution is surprised considering they have given the Indians “all its investigation documents, recording, and conclusions.”  The Italian judge is surprised because the Indians being an “aggrieved party…is expected to help in the case.”

The Italians are surprised but this won’t surprise Indians.  We are accustomed to the devious ways of the Indian government and its minions like the CBI.  Whenever scandals like Agusta emerge, the Indian government, seemingly outraged, will try to get involved.  Not to help take the case but really to hinder and obstruct it at every step.

Remember Bofors?  And how many letters rogatory the government sent to the Swiss and then sat on its behind for years claiming it was waiting for responses?  The government tried to make it look as if the Swiss authorities were being dilatory.  The country bought the government’s argument until Chitra Subramaniam, a journalist based in Switzerland and working with the Hindu at the time proved conclusively the government was lying.  She was able to get the information the Indian government had purportedly waited months for in a single day by sending the right application to the appropriate government office.  The government it turned out had ensured its letters rogatory would go unanswered by deliberately introducing errors into them.  The requests in the letters were vague, confused, and contradictory.

Remember the Adarsh scandal?  Here too the government promised that the guilty would be brought to book.  But what really happened?  As the investigators got closer to the truth, a certain critical file dealing with the matter vanished from government offices.  Months later, probably because the press would not let the matter die, the file turned up mysteriously.  But a critical document, a letter bearing notations by Deshmukh and Ashok Chavan had been taken out!

The country is heartily sick of these smoke and mirrors tactics of the government.  Hiding scandals while pretending to probe them!  With respect to the Agusta case, a  CBI official told the Indian Express that the agency had “shared all available <documents> with the Italian side.”  Notice the verbal sleight of hand.  Available documents?  The question in everyone’s mind will be, “yes, that’s alright but what about the documents that are unavailable, or to put it more precisely, have been made unavailable by the government?”

Dear John Letter To Congress

Dear Congress,

I have customarily voted for you but this time I’m going to vote for the BJP.  Hardly a unique case you may say, shrugging your shoulders.  After all everyone is predicting a huge swing in favor of the BJP.  But the fact I’m Christian should give you pause.  After all, Christians have traditionally allied with you.  You may like to reflect on how you got things so wrong that I am now forced to vote for the BJP, a party that at best grudgingly tolerates people like me, and at worst, well, we have seen its worst in Muzaffarnagar in 2013 and Gujarat in 2002.

Dear BJP (this letter is for you too),

You may like to know what you represent to me that resonates strongly enough to simultaneously overcome my traditional loyalty to the Congress and my natural aversion to you.  Perhaps it will serve to check your communal disposition.

Congress, in 2009, when you were voted back to power, I was delighted.  The result demonstrated three things to me: one, the Indian people were nobody’s fool; two, we care about the things that matter: people’s rights and freedom, quality of governance, and managing the economy; three, we could not be exploited on the basis of differences in religion or caste.

Congress, the act that cemented my vote for you in 2009 was Manmohan Singh staking his government to secure the US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement.  The UPA government had been repeatedly blocked from implementing crucial reforms by the Communists, who insisted that the UPA’s mandate was limited to implementing the Common Minimum Program.   Finally, in 2008, when the Communists threatened to withdraw support over the Indo-US Nuclear Fuel Supply Agreement, Manmohan Singh called their bluff.  And won!

You see Congress, everyone loves a hero willing to sacrifice everything for a principle.  And everyone loves a story where the hero wins.  (That 10 members of the BJP had defied the party whip and voted with you made the story even sweeter.  And sweetest of all was the severe punishment meted out by the people to the Communists.  Post 2009 they have been reduced to almost nothing—clinging to their status as national parties by the skin of their teeth.)

Congress, what did I know that this was going to be the high watermark of Manmohan Singh’s tryst with me!  In the next five years, through various acts of omission and commission, he brought down on his head a series of scandals.  To name just a few: CWG Scandal, 2G Scam, Coal Blocks Allocation Scandal, and AgustaWestland Chopper Deal Scandal.  Each scandal paralyzed Parliament so the government could not implement crucial reforms.  And just when I was thinking, enough, no more please, Manmohan Singh pulled one more rabbit out of his turban—the Representation of the People (Amendment and Validation) Ordinance, 2013 allowing convicted MPs to continue in office.  As an Indian who has never been convicted myself (you may like to know we constitute over 99.9% of the country), I was delighted that 67 years after Independence, the Supreme Court had finally ruled that my elected representative should be held to the same standard I was held to.  You should have left it alone.  But no!  You had to ask Manmohan Singh to sign that obnoxious ordinance.  It was a slap to my face.

Following quickly on the heels of the ordinance came the low comedy.  Rahul Baba threw a tantrum and Manmohan Singh, who had ignored the outraged feelings of the entire country quickly agreed that a “review” of the decision was called for.

In this way, the man who was a hero five years earlier is reduced to a zero today!

**

Still, you will say this is water under the bridge.  You have replaced the doddering, fully depreciated Manmohan Singh with the new youthful Rahul Gandhi.  Your advertisement campaign touts your new focus on youth.  In one advertisement, a young woman looks earnestly into the camera and says, “It is the time for youth.  And who better than Rahul Gandhi to lead us!  After all, only a youth can understand the needs and desires of the youth.”

Unfortunately, Congress, the campaign only reveals that nothing has really changed with you.  The same old, outmoded, patronizing, patriarchal attitudes still rule.

Take this advertisement of yours:

Housewife: Jaldi karo.  Sabzi kaatna hain.  Bacchon koh deri ho rahi hain.  Unhe school janna hai.

Child: Ji memsaab.  Kaash, mein bhi school ja sakti.

Housewife: Kya kahan!  School!  Aur tum!  Hum do waqt ki roti aur rahane keh liye ghar detein hain, kya yeh kaafi nahin hain.

The advertisement angers me.  I know child labor is evil.  I don’t need you to tell me this.  Don’t you know this?  I suspect the real purpose of the advertisement is to convince me that you care deeply for the weakest sections of society.  If in the process you unfairly cast me and the entire middle class as exploiters of children, you couldn’t care less.  This makes me angry.

You have done this before.  A day before the Commonwealth Games opened, when newspapers carried reports of filthy, shit-encrusted toilets in the Athletes Village, Suresh Kalmadi’s assistant came on TV and explained to the assembled press including representatives from international organizations that Indians have lower hygienic standards than the West.  He smiled when he said this as if it were an insider’s joke and he and the press were on the same side.  when I was so angry!  Your representatives think nothing of selling the country short to protect their own skins.

This particular advertisement ends with someone saying:  “Ttheriye!  Yeh aap kya kahein rahe hain!  Aap jaantein nahin ki bacchon se kaam karvane, kanooni apradhi hain?”  This also makes me angry.  You like to pretend that you prefer persuasion over force to get people to change.  The truth is it’s an excuse.  It’s easier to create advertisements like this than to run an efficient government.  After all you’ve been in power for almost 60 years.  Isn’t the fact that you even feel the need to run such advertisements a damning sign of your failure?  The act prohibiting child labor has been in our books for decades.  What were you doing all this time?  Why didn’t you enforce the law?  As the late Justice J.S. Verma said in another context but equally damning one (Nirbhaya case), “The failure is that of governance not lack of laws.”

Where is the police force that will swiftly apprehend people who break the law without fear or favor?  You have destroyed it.  You have run the police force into the ground so that it’s accountability is only to you and not to the people.  I will mention two incidents to substantiate my accusation.  (There are thousands but these two struck a nerve.)  One, after the disappearance of Esther Anuhaya, the techie, the Mumbai Police pooh-poohed her anguished father’s requests to search for her.  Poor man was forced to trek up and down the Eastern Express Highway until he stumbled upon her dead body.  This same police force had no problem assembling a huge police force to scour Mumbai to recover Home Minister Sushil Shinde’s daughter’s SUV that had been stolen.  The vast difference in the reactions of the Mumbai Police to the two cases is burned into my memory.  For this I will punish you.

**

Dear BJP, you are also running advertisements.  One has an excerpt from a Modi speech.  He is shouting lustily about the poor state of our cities.  This is the same negative tone one finds in Congress advertisement but then suddenly it changes tack.  Modi says urban planning is a missed opportunity for India; that it’s time to take charge of our cities.  The word opportunity snags my attention.  It’s a small but significant shift in the tone of the message that presents an unexpectedly different view of an old problem.  I feel empowered.  The issue of urban planning resonates with me, an urban dweller.  Your ad makes me want to roll up my sleeves and tackle the problem.  The Congress advertisement, weepy, nagging about an issue that has been with us for so long makes me impatient.

Congress, this is the problem with you.  You don’t move forward.  With you governance is permanently mired in tired zero-sum games.  Should the price of diesel be raised by 50 paise or 10 paise?  Should people get nine subsidized cooking gas cylinders or twelve?  Despite evidence that people are eager to move on, that the days of people agitating each time the price of diesel is increased are long gone, you refuse to change the terms of discourse.  Is it because it is easy to be the maai-baap and give away goodies instead of running an efficient government?  I think so.  Here’s another thing that angers me.  You’ve done nothing in the past five years to strengthen India’s position internationally.  Our foreign policy making establishment has been quiescent.  It stirred itself only after one of its own–Devyani Khobragade–was charged by the US for allegedly breaking its laws.  Then we were treated to the sight of the Foreign Minister throwing a hissy fit and petulantly posturing for the benefit of the cameras.

What should I do with you?  You learn nothing and forget nothing.  Boot you out that’s what.  For too long you have been the beneficiary of the TINA factor.  That’s why you’re incapable of change.  Maybe a spell in the opposition is what you need.  I’m dying to do you this favor.

**

So, BJP, I’m going to vote for you—even though the prospect of Modi as PM fills me with foreboding.  Am I playing with matches?  Yes.  Any illusions I may have had that you have exorcized the communal devil in your soul were swiftly dispelled after the Muzaffarnagar riots.  Not to mention your recent decision to give tickets to two people widely acknowledged to be the main instigators of the riots.  And yet BJP, I’m still going to vote for you.

Why?  It’s easy to take an absolutist moral stand and say I won’t touch you because of 2002.  But that leaves me with what?  Third Front?  A bad joke.  AAP?  Kejriwal is increasingly unstable and shows signs of incipient insanity.  Congress?  I refuse to give it my vote just because it isn’t you.  NOTA?  Not this time.  And hopefully, never!

So Dear BJP, I’m left with you.  Time to give you another chance I say.  I remember Atalji’s government’s solid achievements in managing the economy, in foreign policy, and building new roads.  Modi, remember this when you are sitting on the kursi in Delhi.  That your party got my vote because of the solid work by your predecessor.

But BJP, I’m giving you fair warning.  I’ll be watching closely.  I’m already nervous about your communal disposition.  Anything that smells of communalism I’ll pick up instantly.  And you know it’s not just me.  Foreign governments will be watching you closely wondering if they have made a mistake allowing 2002 to be brushed under the carpet.

I’ll probably over-react to any sign of communalism from you.  Between the Congress and you, you have the harder job—to convince me (and millions of secular Hindus!) that you can govern responsibly.  Do that and the kursi is yours for a long time.  Screw up, give in to your worst dispositions, and you will be punished like you were in ‘2004.  This is for you to win or lose!

Congress, there is hope for you.  Act like a responsible opposition.  And I may fall in love with you again.

BJP, Congress, if both of you fail, remember, there is always NOTA!

Learning That Targets Bloom Level 2 Is Not Learning!  

One of the tricks journalists use to make readers want to read their articles is writing catchy headlines. “Bipasha Basu to have John Abraham’s Love Child!” screams the headline so I shell out Rs 100 for the latest issue of Stardust only to find on tearing it open that the whole thing is made up.  “Yes, John and I heard that rumor too,” Bipasha tells the reporter, “and let me tell you, its complete nonsense.”

It’s a low and unprincipled thing to do.  I thought I’d try it.

Hence the provocative title of this post.

I’m not a journalist, so you’re not going to read–after I’ve tricked you into clicking the link(!)–that learning at level 2 is learning after all.  It’s not!  My thesis is that only learning pitched at level 3 and higher is learning.  Before you burn me at the stake, please hear me out.

Transference is a problem well-known to instruction designers. It refers to the difficulty learners face transferring what they learned in training to the real world (workplace if you’re engaged in corporate training like I am.)  We’ve all experienced it.  Several years ago I took a course on team building called ‘The Nine Traits of Successful Teams.”  The course was well-designed, comprising many beautifully illustrated screens filled with lucid text explaining what each of the nine traits were.  Every few screens there were practice questions to reinforce my understanding.  The feedback was warm, friendly, reassuring, and immediate.

On returning to the office, I tried to practice what I’d learned but my colleagues wouldn’t cooperate.  They insisted on behaving like they always did.  After a while I gave up and went back to doing things the old way.  Today for the life of me I can’t remember a single one of those nine traits, and I can honestly say, I was neither better nor worse at leading teams because of the training.  But – and this is what I want to emphasize – even if by some miracle I were to suddenly recollect what the nine traits were, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference as far as my skill at team building goes.  You see, though the training was well-designed, it left out one critical element – context.  The course failed to teach me how to develop those nine traits within the context in which I worked.  Without the context, I was unable to transfer what I had learned to my workplace.

Edward Thorndike and Robert Woodworth who developed the Theory of Transfer of Learning argued that for transference to happen, the learning task and the transfer task must be the same.  If you believe this to be true, then it follows that learning that does not teach people how to apply skills within the contexts in which they live and work is doomed to fail.  Because Bloom level 2 is about cognitive understanding, it can be taught without embedding in context.  Learners taking courses targeting these levels come away with knowledge they cannot use!  Alfred Northhead coined a hard term that describes such knowledge–inert.  He wrote, “Theoretical ideas should always find important applications within the pupil’s curriculum. This is not an easy doctrine to apply, but a very hard one. It contains within itself the problem of keeping knowledge alive, of preventing it from becoming inert, which is the central problem of all education.””

Context becomes critical when learning targets Bloom levels 3 and higher.  A few years ago, I was part of a team that developed sales courses for Ford car dealers.  The courses were scenario-based.  The scenarios were deeply embedded in the context of a typical car dealership.  The training had several goals – one of them being overcoming the reluctance of sales representatives to take prospective customers on test drives.  Ford had statistics showing that a customer was three times more likely to buy a car, if they had taken it for a test drive.  Still sales reps insisted customers didn’t want to take test drives.  Some of the common excuses customers gave were, “I’ve driven Fords before,” or, “It’s for my wife,” or, “I don’t have the time.  Maybe later.”  Reps didn’t know how to respond to such excuses.  In the scenarios, we taught them how to respond.  We didn’t just tell them what the responses were and hope they’d memorize them.  We put them in front of fictional customers.  Selling situations are highly fluid; events don’t happen in a predictable manner.  We wanted to put the learner into the same situation, and did our best to simulate the fluid and dynamic nature of a selling situation.

Several months after the training had been rolled out, Ford reported that the numbers of test drives had gone up significantly in dealerships where reps had taken the training.  I believe this happened because the courses were designed to avoid the transference problem.

What then are we to make of Bloom level 2?  And level 1 (memorization)?  If they’re not learning, why did Benjamin Bloom describe them as such?  When Bloom developed his taxonomy, he was trying to improve the US public school system, which at that time – we are talking about the 50s – focussed almost exclusively on memorization and rote learning.  His taxonomy was a way for educators and teachers to plan learning activities that aimed for higher learned abilities.  In the absence of the taxonomy, Bloom thought teachers would tend to gravitate to levels 1 and 2 because it made for easier testing.  The point I’m arguing is that Bloom himself recognized that real learning begins at level 3.

Actually, at a deep level we all recognize that to be really useful, learning has to be level 3 or higher.  Would we feel confident flying in a plane piloted by someone who memorized the pilots flying manual and scored 100% on the assessment?  Or, a doctor who passed all his written tests but never actually diagnosed a real patient?  Absolutely not!  Trainee pilots log must log hundreds of hours flying, and airlines send their pilots for refresher training on flight simulators costing hundreds of million dollars.  You can be sure no manager in an airline will ever propose cutting costs by skipping pilot training on a simulator.  Why is that?  Because when the difference between good and bad training means life or death, no one disputes the value of higher level learning.

But when the training is for humdrum activities such as reading a balance sheet, selling a car, fixing a washing machine, or formulating a business strategy, jobs where the consequence of failure are less dramatic – when was the last time people died because someone misread a balance sheet(?) – then, somehow it becomes perfectly acceptable to deliver courses at Bloom levels 1 or 2.

We must seriously ask ourselves if these courses work.  They work in the trivial sense that learners who take them can pass the end of course assessments but when it comes to applying what they have learned in the real world, what then?

Postscript

Time permitting the writer of this post hopes to write another one soon titled “Bipasha Basu to have Triplets by John Abraham”.