Learning the ‘3R’s

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 I often think back and try to recollect how my parents went about my education, and every time I am amazed at the daring non-conventional approach that they had adopted.   I must have been given picture books of nursery rhymes when I was very young.   I say this not because I remember it but because I have seen a picture of mine with such a book taken when I must have been three years of age.  I however have no recollection whatsoever of reading such books.   What I do remember is sitting with Baba while he read his morning news papers.   Three news papers came every morning.  There was a copy of the Statesman, a copy of the Amritbazar Patrika and a copy of the Ananda Bazar Patrika. The first two were in English and the third in Bangla.   Baba would pick a letter and underline it.   The he would mark a loop around a small paragraph and dare me to find more instances of the marked letter within the marked paragraph than he could.   If I could find all instances of the marked letter then I would get a big hug.   I do not recollect at what stage the underlined letters became words and then the words sentences. Grammar was swallowed with biscuits and tea.   Ma had brought four biscuits and Baba has eaten one of them so now there are three left, and the number would become two if I was to eat one too!   No! That is unfair.  The number will become zero as I shall eat all the remaining three!   And so the game went on.

The news paper session was a daily feature and it was long.   Baba normally went to his office only by about eleven.    We the kids were pushed out of bed by about five in the morning.   The three of us would then get into bed with Baba and have an hour of games based on mathematical tables.    Easiest of the games was to simply recite a table through.   A slightly tougher task was to recite one backwards, but even that was soon passé. We had to run the number line with many complicated skip requirements.   For instance, we could be asked to recite numbers from 30 to 99 skipping all multiples of 3 and 7.   It was great fun as it gave me a chance to beat my sisters in this game even though they were soooooo much older than I was.   Six to seven was the time for brushing our teeth, changing from our night clothes, saying our prayers and having our breakfast, and then the newspapers for three hours with Baba. In his hand the news paper became a wonderful all purpose educational tool.    The best part of this was that I never realized that I was being educated.   It was all a nice romantic romp with Baba through uncharted territories.   He was a past master in triggering questions that would lead us into investigative learning.  We had dictionaries and atlases as essential tools.   Whenever any one of us asked him the meaning of a word he would make us pick up the dictionary and discover the meaning by our own toil.     In the newspaper, we had to identify the datelined spot in the atlas and connect the name of the town with the country it was in.   Often a statement made by a person would lead us to a discussion as to why the person was saying what the newspaper said he was saying.    It was a wonderful way to learn that the written word is meaningful only when it was interpreted in a wider angle in your own mind.   It also taught me that the same news did not carry the same meaning to every one; that we were forever reading into what was written bits of what we thought aught to have been written.   Through this process history and geography, sociology and life sciences, physics and mathematics all merged into a mass of delectable intellectual feast that was difficult to resist.

What is the line dividing popular science with serious teaching of physics and mathematics?  At what age does one teach the concepts of density, specific gravity or buoyancy to a child?   How about kinetic and potential energy or for that matter wave theory and interference?  How about Boyel’s law or Charles’s Law?   How about Doppler’s effect?    I do not know if there can be an answer to this question.   Perhaps the closest one can get is to say that it should be taught as and when the opportunity arrives.  In my case, my parents found (created?) an opportunity for each of these at an amazingly early stage.    I used to love hearing the story of Archimedes and his running down the streets without any clothes on.  I heard the story from Ma perhaps a hundred times.    I still do not know at what stage I queried her as to how he managed to deduce information about the purity of the material of the crown from the overflowing of his bathtub.   I do not know if my inquisitiveness was cleverly and deliberately triggered or it was allowed to grow naturally.    What I do know however is that between the age of about three, when I must have been told that story for the first time, and the age of about seven, by which time I had become tired of the silly story, it was used to make me aware of all these matters of density, specific gravity and buoyancy in a way that I could never forget them.

The decision not to send me to a school gave me the opportunity to spend one huge amount of my time to be near either or both of my parents every day.   Some times Baba took me with him to his office at the District Board headquarters.   There was a small sanitary production unit there under his control where distilled water was produced and bottled for use by his inoculators and vaccinators in their cholera/malaria/smallpox prevention program.   I used to be quite fascinated by the whole process of converting water into steam and then distilling the steam back into water as it traveled through glass cooling jackets.    No one ever took a class for me to explain what was happening, but over repeated visits and casual (planned and directed?) conversation I became aware of the words vaporization, condensation, distillation, latent heat, boiling point, sterilization, disinfections,  their meanings and their practical applications.    Some where along the line, Louis Pasteur   became a known personality and pasteurization of milk a known process. 

 As the District Health officer, the main task facing Baba was the prevention of the three major killer diseases afflicting the district.   These were Malaria, typhoid and small pox.   Jessore district was swampy.    Over the previous half a century, careless construction of roads and railway lines had disrupted the natural system of drainage.   The main rivers of the district, Bhairab, Chitra and Kabodak were all drying up.   Over large stretches of land the rivers had left behind swamps after having changed their courses in the face of man-made obstructions.   This not only caused havoc with the process of agriculture, it also made the management of public health a nightmare.   Lack of clean water aggravated typhoid, stagnant water bodies encouraged breeding of mosquito and the spread of malaria.   A general switch of crop from rice paddies to jute, hemp and betel nut aggravated the problem of mosquito breeding and control over malaria.    Baba needed to tour the district constantly and extensively to spot any new hazards to public health and get remedial action taken.    He also had a very extensive system of rural health education where the knowledge of water purification and mosquito control, of contamination of water resources and its relationship with the spread of typhoid and small pox had to be spread at the village level.    He was therefore on the road often and had to stay out for fifteen days or more in a month.   To reconcile this task with the needs of my education, he started taking me out with him on his tours.   We traveled mostly in our own car.     Baba used to converse with me as we traveled.    In the process, he managed to transfer huge chunks information about geography and hydrology,  about building of roads and bridges, about irrigation and drainage, and about agriculture based economy to the unsuspecting six year old.    And, as the seasons went by, I could see the tilling of the fields, the transplantation of rice paddies, the growing and ripening of grains on the stalks, the harvesting, the threshing the winnowing, and the packing and transportation of the grain to the mandis; a natural process laid bare in front of my eyes, intimately connected to the joys and sorrows of real people all around me.

For a parent with a growing child, packaging and transfer of information is one huge and constant task.   When I now look back and examine the activities of my parents, I am amazed at their constant innovations in the process of my education.   We had gone to the railway station one day to pick up an incoming guest. The train was late.   Baba went back to work while Ma and I waited at the station for the train to come in.     We walked along the platform and inspected a goods train rake standing on one of the spare lines.   The wagons had many things written on them.    Did I know what all those letters meant?    Most of the wagons had “B & A R” marked on the side.   Some others had the letters “E I R” or “B N R” written on them.   It soon became a game as to how many different marks I could find.   By the end of the evening, the general structure of the Indian railways and the names of all the major railway companies of the country had become familiar to me.   Bengal and Assam (B&AR), East Indian (EIR), Bengal Nagpur (BNR), Bombay Baroda and Central Indian (BBCIR), Madras and South Maratha (MSMR) all became a procession of flags on the railway map.    Back at home, a railway map of India was traced out on a piece of paper and all these names and others like NWR and SIR were marked out in various colours.     This game, which no school syllabus would have brought to me, marked out the contours of a subcontinent in my mind and marked it with the concept called My Country.

This wonderful style of home schooling continued in its many and varied forms. Our new house was quite far away from the main bazaar.    It was therefore more convenient to pick up the house hold necessities from tradesmen (we called them ferry- wala) rather that send someone to the market.   One day, Ma sat at the sewing machine and stitched a small bag secured by a draw string and gave it to me.   Then she went to her wall safe and took out twenty rupees in small change and put it in that bag.    She then very formally appointed me as the house accountant.   Whenever any one purchased any thing from a ferry-wala, I was called upon to calculate the value of the purchases and to give out the correct sum to the salesman.    Those were days when twenty rupees amounted to a lot of money.    One rupee coins were made of real silver, as were the half rupee and quarter rupee coins.   One Anna (one sixteenth of a rupee) and two Anna coins were made of brass, One Pice (one sixty fourth of one rupee) and one Pie (3 pies to one Pice) coins were of pure copper.   My bag of coins was therefore reasonably heavy.   There was also a small notebook and a pencil kept inside the bag to record each transaction.   At the beginning of each month, I had to pay out monthly salaries to all the servants.   Five rupees to the cook Dube, three rupees and eight annas to Niranjan, four rupees to Nirapodo, one rupee eight annas to the maid who cleaned the utensils, a similar amount to the maid who swept and swabbed the floor, and ten annas to the woman who cleaned the drains.   (For clearing the dry latrines she got paid from the municipality.)   This management of finance was enough to make me an expert in mental mathematics.

We measured solids by Maunds (=40 Seers), Seers (=sixteen Chhattaks), Chhattaks (=5 tolas) and Tolas. Precious metals like gold had a smaller unit called a Ratti which I think was 1/80th of a Tola.   These measurements were in day to day use.   However, we were also required to learn the weights and measures used by the British.   So, the relationship between grammes, ounces, pounds, hundredweights, and tons had to be mugged.   These measurements were used only in recipe books, medicine counters, and building material depots. We also had to learn the volumetric measures of drams, fluid ounces, pints, quarts and gallons.  Homeopathic medicines came in drams and ounces.   At Baba’s medical stores at the District Board office distilled water was stored in Pint Bottles and Phenyl in quart drums.   We purchased petrol from the petrol-pump by the gallons. (It was quite fascinating really; the pump attendant used a hand pump to fill a glass bottle with petrol.   When the level of petrol in the bottle reached a red mark, he used to open a cock and the petrol then drained into the petrol-tank of the car!)  In day to day life, though, the tradesmen trading their goods by volume used their own measures like coconut shells (for measuring oils), terracotta bowls (for measuring grains) or bamboo / cane baskets (for measuring puffed rice etc.).

In our childhood the metric system of measurements were not in use.  We normally measured small distances in inches and feet and longer distances by furlong and miles.   I however got trapped into learning the metric system one day.   Ma and I had gone to the railway station; I do not recollect who we were to pick up.   As usual, the train was late and we were walking about.   I found that there was a disused rail track much narrower than the usual one.  I asked Ma about it.   I learnt that there used to be a light rail company that ran a train service from Jessore to Narail.   The company had closed down.   Some traces of their track were still visible.   This led to the description of railway gauges: Narrow, Meter and Broad.    Jessore – Narail was a narrow gauge track.  It was 2 feet wide.   The one in use at Jessore was Broad gauge. It was 5’6” wide.   There was a third system called meter gauge.  It was 1 meter wide.   Here came the catch. What was a meter? It was one millionth of the average distance from the pole to the equator.   How would we know how big the meter was?   A rod one meter long was kept in a museum in Paris.  Its length was one meter when the prevailing temperature was 0 degrees Celsius.   Why was it kept in Paris?  It was because there was an international body located in Paris who was in charge of this rod.   One question led to another and the metric system got included amongst the things I had to learn!  

By the end of 1939, the tone of our morning newspaper sessions changed.   There was a war raging in Europe and the newspapers were full of it.   There were more vigorous discussions amongst Baba’s friends and new terms became familiar:   Blitz and Panzer, Austria, Poland and the Declaration of war, Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini.    The news papers would carry large maps of changing frontiers. Through this distant war, geo-politics and military science made a forceful entry into my amorphous mass of an inquisitive mind.    The canvas expanded, but the care that my parents took to fill it with delicate strokes remained unchanged.

Petrol was rationed.   That caused a shrinking of my tours out with Baba.  I missed those trips, but six year olds do not grieve over stuff beyond their control.   Quite by accident, Mr. Saibal Gupta came in as the District Judge.  His wife Ashoka was a charming lady who was socially very active.   Their son Partha Sarathi was about by age and we became close friends. Very soon after their arrival, Mrs. Gupta created an organization for young children.  Sge called it the Children’s Jolly Club.  It functioned out of their own official Bungalow.  My sisters and I became very active members of this club.   We played games, and play acted stories.      At the same time, parental interaction, with Baba and Ma as well as with the Guptas kept up the process of expansion of our horizons.    I of course did not know at that time that Partha Sarathi would grow up to become one of the foremost historians of our time.  

 Does any one know how value systems are infused in a young mind?  Perhaps an unseen all pervasive constant transfer of social and moral values is what culture is all about.    How we shall behave in our adult lives is so closely related to how often Grandma cuddled you to her breast and what tales she told you when you were dozing off to dreamland.     A happy harmonious home where the adults are ready to tell the young ones stories of their lives is a culturally vibrant home.

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