Travelogue | MY TRIP TO NAGAPATTINAM – Part 3 (Last part)

…contd from My Trip to Nagapattinam – Part 2

I could see a lot of difference in the attitude and behavior of the people as compared to the people from the cities. As compared to the city dwellers, village folks are very loving. The children and teachers were all anxious to see what Vedic Mathematics is all about because they couldn’t get the knowledge easily from Nagapattinam. Even non-Math teachers attended the classes because of their yearning to learn something new. The children looked forward at the classes as a source of entertainment. They were far away from any negative influence that the kids in the cities are affected with. They were so shy that once when I uttered the word ‘Pair’ while explaining a topic in Math, they shied away their eyes. When they heard ‘Pair’ it reminded them of the word ‘couple’. And they were SHY! Which was a surprise for me. Because in the cities, we see children from lower classes exposed to all infatuations and school-love and relationships. But here, it was far beyond their imagination. I was told by Ganesh Sir that the total population of Nagapattinam itself was only 100,000. So, they could easily identify any outsider. If the children would be seen roaming on the roads after school hours, any onlooker would call up the school and inform about such an incident and the student would be warned. To them, internet was a taboo and talking of email ids and facebook was a hush-hush. All the while I enjoyed their village innocence and their love they showered over me. There would not be a single student who would pass by without greeting their teachers. The way of greeting in Chinmaya Vidyalayas was ‘Hari Om’ and I had to keep saying Hari Om as a return greeting every time I walked in school. The teachers too were very loving. Sometimes, if the lady peons who would serve me lunch would not be at the table, the teachers themselves (once even the vice-principal herself) would serve lunch for me despite my pleading requests of not to do so. In almost all alternate evenings, Saravanan Sir would call or come by the school just to ask me if I need anything from the market because he was going to the market. I experienced hospitality at its best over there. Their love gave me the spirit to take classes for long hours.

As usual, I enjoyed the classes very much. The children enjoyed too. We did techniques on faster subtraction, multiplication and squaring for all classes. For 9th & 10th, we did cubing and a few more techniques. For every batch, I enjoyed doing sessions where I could ask a lot of WHYs for everything they say. For example, while doing the concept of area they said, “Area of a square is side x side, area of a rectangle is length x breadth.” And I tried to bring all innocence to my face and asked them, “Why is it so?” They would reply, “It’s the formula Sir. If we don’t use that, then how will we get the answer?” I asked them again, “Who made these formulae? Why are they not different? Why area of a square is only side x side why not ½ x side x side?” They would give a puzzled look on their face. In every school where I’ve done workshops, I’ve faced the same reaction. I then have to lead them to get the thought of deriving a formula. Some would still say, “Area of a square is side x side because all sides are equal.” I then would ask them, “In that case area of a rhombus also has to be side x side because all sides of a rhombus are also equal.” Suddenly someone would come up with their logic saying, “Because in a square all sides are equal and all angles are right angles.” It is a strange thing how we derive a logic behind a statement. When our ‘mind’ is convinced on some idea (irrespective of the fact that it is backed by reasoning or not), it automatically tries to find logic behind the idea to satisfy the ‘intellect’. Say for example, for a person who is convinced that ghosts exist, he can come up with so many reasons to back his statement. These reasons may not sound logical for others. But for him, it is. Because he is sure of the idea and hence whatever reasons he finds is apt for his intellectual understanding. When others wonder and label him illogical, he must be thinking the same thing about others!

So, for children too, they are convinced by these formulae without even questioning its derivation to their teachers. Sadly, we do not get an opportunity to question or think and try to find the reason ourselves behind Mathematical formulae in school. Most of our teachers are taught to teach, not to make the minds to question. When I was in school, our Mathematics tuition teacher Sri P.P.Raman Sir would ask him so many questions which would make us think and derive solutions to problems. This enabled his students to get the exact reason and find the proper logic behind a proof. Unless and until students get an opportunity to think and discover the science behind every working in Mathematics, how are the supposedly to ‘understand’ mathematics? Many of them score, but very few understand mathematics.
While I was taking class here, it was raining outside. I said, “If I ask you why it is raining outside, then would you tell me – It is hot in Mumbai. Mumbai is 700 kms from here. And hence it is raining here!” They all laughed. I went on, “That is how it sounds to me when you say – All sides of a square are equal. All angles are right angles. Hence area of a square should be side x side.” There was complete silence in the class. They understood that their statements did not have logic behind it but still they thought it had logic. That was a thunderbolt to them. Till now they never thought that formulae have to be questioned or they can be derived. This was nothing new for me because in most of the schools I receive the same answers. Very few of them understand the concept of area. That when we say area of a figure is 50 square feet, it means the shape when divided into smaller squares of size 1 foot each, we will get exactly 50 squares.

Slowly, I had to take them to discover the formula for area of a square and rectangle. Once they have understood these two formulae, they gradually start thinking and deriving formulae for area of a triangle and parallelogram. That’s it! My objective is achieved if the slightest thinking process is set during the 8 – 10 hours workshops. In this school, there was one boy of 8th standard, Kamlesh. When I asked their class the derivation of formula for area of a rectangle, he thought for a while and said, “Sir, I can try proving it using an example. Suppose there are a certain number of bottles in a rectangular box, then I can get the total number of bottles when I multiply the number of bottles in a row by the number of columns.” That boy had got the idea. He could try proving a formula by associating it with another example which he might have (perhaps) solved or observed previously. This is a process that has to be cultivated in the children right from a young age – ‘how to get it solved?’ In his book How to Solve It, George Polya, a famous Mathematician says, “Look at the unknown (what is to be found out in a problem). And think of a similar problem having the same or similar unknown. This suggestion advises you to do whatever you would do anyhow, without any advice, if you were seriously concerned with the problem. Are you hungry? You wish to obtain food and you think of familiar ways of obtaining food. Have you a problem of any kind? You wish to find a certain unknown, and you think of familiar ways of finding such an unknown, or some similar unknown.” This is a very useful tip that can be used by teachers, parents or anyone for that matter, who wish to train children in problem-solving.

Two and a half weeks flew like anything. And it was the last day of the workshop. We took class-wise group photos and some casual photographs with the 10th standard students. The 10th standard students were asked to sit casually engaged in some conversation with me so that some candid photos could be taken. They were again shy. Finally I engaged them in another discussion over Pi and when they were engrossed in it, the photographer did his job.

Immediately after the photo session, I bid good-bye to all the students, teachers and staff and left for the railway station to catch my train. Two male teachers came to the railway station to bid me goodbye. For three weeks, with all the love I received from the village-folks I never felt I was away from my family. And there I was, on a train, continuing my journey back to place where I came from – my home, my family.

MY TRIP TO NAGAPATTINAM – Part 2

…contd from My Trip to Nagapattinam – Part 1

I woke up when the power went off (again). At around 5 pm, Saravanan Sir picked me up and we went to the beach. The Chinmaya Vidyalaya, where I had to take class, was hardly a kilometer away from the beach. When I saw that, I was happy thinking that atleast on a few days I could go to the beach in the evenings and spend some time chilling. He explained to me how Tsunami had hit the place badly a few years back. There was a stadium near the beach which entirely disappeared when Tsunami hit. He said that when they came to the beach after the disaster and felt as if they came to a wrong place because they thought ‘How could a stadium just disappear?’ It was moderately crowded, the day being a Sunday. We spent some time on the beach and I was finally dropped at Swamy Mansion.

I went out at 8:30 to get my dinner. It is totally dark. No street lights, no lights from homes due to the power cut. I used my mobile torch to get some light so that I won’t slip my feet in the uneven roads. I reached the hotel where I had taken lunch from. I could see the curiosity of the hotelier’s eyes. They understood that I was new. The pony tail in my hair always caught attention, especially in such remote places.

In Tamil Nadu, they don’t have rice for dinner. They have Idli or Dosa or something similar to what they have for breakfast. They call it ‘tiffin’. I had some Idlis and went back to my lodge. Again, no power. My neighbor in the lodge had told me with a sarcastic smile that at night the power goes out every alternate hour. He was right, full night the power came and went off every alternate hour. I applied mosquito repellent cream all over my body and tried to get some sleep. And I did get good sleep except for the times when the power came and went off. At those points, I was woken up for a few seconds and then I snoozed off again. Finally I woke up at 6 am. After which the power was continuously cut. I had my shower and went to the school with Saravanan Sir who picked me up at 8 am.

I met the Acharya of the Chinmaya Mission Centre in Nagapattinam, Swami Ramakrishnananda, an excellent teacher of Sanskrit. His peculiarity is that anyone who would attend his workshops on Sanskrit for 6 hours, would be rolling on the floor with laughter for 5 ½ hours. At the end of the workshop, they would learn beautiful Sanskrit. He would teach Sanskrit with quick caricatures he drew on the board which would imprint the topic in our minds. I had attended his classes and knew him in person. When I met him, I gave him a packet of sweets. He jokingly asked, “Why sweets? Is it your birthday?” and started laughing. Swamiji is a very jovial person. For the people who know him, even his look is enough to make them laugh.

He asked me, “Is your stay comfortable?” This time it was a serious question. I smiled back thinking how I should say NO with a smile. He repeated the question again. I said, “Swamiji, can I stay in the school? I think I’ll be more comfortable here. I find it a bit risky to lock my luggage, laptop, etc. in the lodge which has got no security and even the lock is a small one.” He thought for a second and said, “Ok. Let me see.” I felt a bit relieved. We went ahead for the school assembly. Following that was the first class of our workshop. It was 6th standard students. Really sweet and loving children from the village side. I enjoyed all my sessions – 6 hours in total, 4 ½ for 6th standard and 1 ½ for 10th standard. The time duration was the same for the following days. On some days, we had a session more which resulted in 8 hours classes. I was used to 6 hours back to back classes but was doing 8 hours for the first time. Anyways, I enjoyed each and every bit, thanks to the attentive & enthusiastic children and teachers who wanted to learn something, just for the sake of learning it.

On the first day evening, the Principal, Mrs. Geeta Bennett, said that they don’t have a room in the school. But if it is ok with me, I can stay in the Computer lab. She showed me the lab. I was so happy and relieved. I told her that I’ll be very much happy staying in the school premises. She was looking a bit hesitant for having asking a guest to stay in a classroom. But I told her that as compared to what Swami Chinmayananda had to go through, I haven’t tasted hardships anywhere near that. I assured her that I’ll be perfectly fine. She said that I could use the bathroom outside Swamiji’s quarters. I felt lucky that I didn’t have to use the school bathroom. Immediately me & Selvakumaran Sir (maths teacher) went back to my lodge to bring my luggage. I had already kept it packed for, I had dreamed of this move to the school. Thus began my stay in the school.

The campus was very peaceful and serene. There were a lot of trees inhabited by different kinds of birds and squirrels. There was a small water body in the neighbouring compound which brought in kingfishers. All this I could see from my computer lab. Sometimes the squirrels would come inside the lab and even in classrooms. It was fun to see them play. Every morning I would go out and watch them play as I had my morning tea or coffee. I could taste the nature at the start of every new day. The school had a small open area which was surrounded by the rectangular school building on four sides. The sand inside the school compound was the beach sand. I used to get tempted to play in the sand very often. The open area also had an idol of Lord Ganesh and a small temple of Lord Shiva. Every morning Swamiji would come and do a small pooja and offer prayers. It was good to see many teachers and students beginning their day after offering their prayers at the temple.

They had a small ground where the students, teachers and Swamiji would play volleyball every evening after school. I was really surprised to see that the students didn’t leave the school immediately after school. They would hang around, play in the ground, run around, small children would play with the beach sand and leave after an hour or so. The junior college boys formed a team against the male teachers and Swamiji. This school had around 11 male teachers, which was too big a number for male teachers in schools I’ve come across in India. Owing to the low salaries offered at schools, men usually don’t take up teaching in schools. Colleges give a good pay and hence we find more male professors in colleges. Anyways, the school used to get over by 4 pm but the teachers and students would play in the evening atleast till 6 pm. Swamiji would enjoy playing volleyball with them. Under his guidance, I could see a lot of bonding amongst all the teachers and a good bonding between the students and teachers.

There was a caretaker in the school; they called him ‘Thatha’ (grandpa in Tamil). He took care of my food. He used to bring food and tea for me from the hotel. The watchmen were also very friendly. They watched me with all awe and wonder as they saw me talking in English over the phone. And they were all the more surprised when they came to know that I knew a few more languages. For them, they knew only Tamil. If someone of them could talk a few words in English, it was a great thing. Among them was Anandan, who could speak and understand English little bit because he had worked abroad for a few years. He would keep singing Tamil songs at the top of his voice. Even though I didn’t understand it much, I enjoyed the melody in his voice.

Luckily for me, here, there was no power cut between 11 pm and 6 am. That ensured my good sleep. Day time power cut was taken care by the generator. I just had to bear 2-3 hours of power cut in the evenings after 6. After a few days, Swamiji had to travel and his quarter was locked. And the pumproom (for the bathroom that I used outside his room) had its switch inside Swamiji’s quarter. So, they allotted a latrine in the boys’ wash room, for me. It was locked for others and only I could use it. Good that it was allotted to me or else, I would have had a tough time to find a suitable place to wash my clothes. Initially I was a bit hesitant to use the school washroom as it is not usually very neat. But that was not the case here. It was clean.

Morning power cut and mosquitoes would wake me up at 6 – 6:30. The children started coming to school right from 8 am. The school timing was 9:20 but owing to the lesser number of school buses, each bus had to do two trips. Hence, few students had to come early to school. Our classes on Vedic Mathematics began at 9 am for the first batch, followed by three 1 ½ hours batches throughout the day with a 15 minutes lunch break. If there would be a special session for teachers, or something for 10th standard, we would continue till 5 pm. After the classes, I loved watching the volleyball matches. My mind was pretty good with calculations, but my body never followed my mind. That’s my understanding of why I never did well in any physical sport. So, I stood apart always and enjoyed watching.

I would enjoy my evening walks outside when there would be cool breezes, thanks to the sea coast. The time during power cuts was spent over the phone and evening walks, or sometimes in star gazing or sometimes with the watchmen when they would try their best to make me understand what they are trying to say and I too would struggle to express my thoughts in my broken Tamil. Once I was trying to make them understand something and I wanted to say ‘man and woman’. Later I understood that they mistook my words for ‘sex’.

…contd in My Trip to Nagapattinam – Part 3

MY TRIP TO NAGAPATTINAM – Part 1

I boarded my train to Ernakulam from Mumbai on 5th Oct 2012 with all excitement in mind. This was the biggest workshop I was going to do. Nagapattinam Chinmaya Vidyalaya had enrolled all students (385 of them) from 6th – 10th standard for Vedic Mathematics workshop.

Nagapattinam is a small town (almost a village) in the coastal side (towards the Bay of Bengal) of Tamil Nadu. Since there was no direct train from Mumbai to Nagapattinam, I had to do a break journey at Ernakulam. I reached Nagapattinam by 11 am on 7th. It was a hot sunny Sunday and three male school teachers – Ganesh Sir (Senior Math teacher), Saravanan Sir (IT) and Madhavan Sir (Physical Trainer); had come to receive me at the railway station. With their pleasant smiles on the faces, they welcomed me to the port town, Nagapattinam. Together we went to the place where they had arranged my stay. All of them were very friendly and loving village folk. In our earlier communications, I had asked Ganesh Sir if I could stay in the school but was given to understand that the school had no guest rooms. Hence they arranged my stay at ‘Swamy Mansion’ where people who come to the place for business purposes, stay for a long period.

The roads weren’t quite good and there was hardly any traffic on the road. Being a Sunday, the whole town was very silent with hardly any shops open. We reached the Swamy Mansion very soon. It was a lodge. I was taken to my room on the first floor which was pretty small. The very moment I entered the room, the question that came to my mind was, “Where’s the laterine?” I asked them and they showed me few common bathrooms and laterines. “Oh no!”, I said in my mind. That was not what I expected. Of all things in the world, I was never able to compromise on bathrooms. I somehow hid my feelings inside as we continued our conversations. Suddenly I realized that I was feeling hot. When I looked for the switch, my neighbor in the next room appeared before me and said with a smile, “There’s no electricity.” I smiled back and said, “Oh, Ok. When will the power be back?” He replied, “No idea. The power cut is for 10-12 hours.” “WHAT!!!!!”, I cried out. “No, no. This cannot be. I must be dreaming”, I thought. But in a few seconds, my mind convinced me that I was in the waking state and whatever happening was relatively real. All my excitement got washed away. Ganesh Sir kept talking about the schedule we were going to follow from the next day for the workshop and I could hardly listen to that. All the sound I could hear was of my mind telling me, “Buddy! How are we going to survive for another 18 days in this place? You are going to die out here without even getting to say good-bye to your dear ones.”

I interrupted Ganesh Sir and said, “Sir, how far is the school from here?” “2-3 kilometers”, he replied. “If I can stay in the school, I can save my travelling time.” Ganesh Sir said, “Sir, we don’t have a facility to stay at the school. We thought you would be more comfortable here and get some privacy. Hence this was arranged.” I replied, “Okay…Sir” and gave back a smile to console his confused look when he observed the uncomfortable feeling on my face.

In some time, two of them left and I went with Madhavan Sir to have lunch. All the hotels were closed the day being Sunday. Luckily we got a hotel and I carried my lunch back as parcel. As we reached back, there was no still no electricity. I went down to the back side of the lodge near the bathroom area to wash my clothes and have a shower. The bathroom floor was not clean. Washing was done on a hard stone made for the specific purpose, as it is usually done in Indian villages. That was my first experience of washing clothes in that fashion. I had a shower and went back to my room. I called up my wife and explained to her my plight. She almost hit the floor with laughter. I said, “Yeah! Laugh. I too will laugh upon this after a few days. But now, happiness is a feeling I can’t experience at all!”

I had my lunch. It was good. Packed in the typical south Indian way, in a banana leaf. After I finished, I looked for a dust bin in my room. I couldn’t find one. I put all the waste in a plastic cover and kept it outside the room. The room had two windows. When I opened one window, I could see another room’s window just three feet away. So, I closed it for my privacy. I opened the other window next to the door which opened towards the common verandah for all the rooms on the floor. I could see every passing person staring inside out of curiosity. I closed that window too and lied down on the bed. Luckily for me, Ganesh Sir had bought a new cotton mattress, bed sheet and pillow for me. So I had a good bed to sleep on.

I lied down, sweating from head to toe, thinking what to do, feeling some self-pity. Suddenly it was taken back to thoughts of my Guru, whom I adore the most, Swami Chinmayananda. When he started travelling all over India, way back in 1950s, how things would have been in those days? How he must have travelled through the villages facing challenging situations at all times, with least of comforts, ever ready to face whatever life offers him; how he must have lived during those days and how much he must have struggled and built a worldwide organization? And here I am, totally low with a few issues like common bathroom, no electricity, etc. How pathetic is this state of mind, I thought? As I lay with those thoughts, the power was back and I slowly dozed off.

…contd in My Trip to Nagapattinam – Part 2