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Monday, November 17, 2008

The Void (& The CREaTIoNist's Filler!)

In any English Medium school in Pakistan - be it the one that people are almost dying to send their child to, or the little one on the corner of the street near your house which thinks that to be really 'acceptable' it's essential to have the word 'Saint' in its name (the one near mine is called "St. Humpty Dumpty's") - there is one common problem: Getting the children interested in reading Urdu books.

There are many reasons, of course.

For one, many parents pay more than they can afford just so their child can get a basic knowledge of English - hoping that, in later years, this will open up better job opportunities. In fact it does, both internationally and locally. So when their child starts reading English books, comics, newspapers and magazines, they feel they are getting a return on their investment and rarely notice (or purposely overlook) the almost total absence of Urdu books around their child. (I live in Karachi so I am basing this on my experience, but friends across the country tell me that books in the national and regional languages share, at best, the same fate everywhere. YMMV.)

For another, the quality of the Urdu books for each age group, though improving slowly now, is still so low in terms of print quality, paper quality, and illustrations (all of which are victims of 'the economies of scale') in comparison to their English counterparts that no child finds them attractive enough to choose from the school library.

One thing that puzzles me, though, is why the 'content', too, is so poor. While English books present adventures and situations that are contemporary and within the direct or indirect (via Films & TV) experience of the child, the Urdu books are often still stuck in another century. Why are there no Enid Blytons, Roald Dahls, J K Rowlings, Shel Silversteins, or even R L Stines? Why did things come to a halt with Toat Batoat and Paesa Library?

A few Urdu books from The Book Group - despite some flaws (I recall Anita Ghulamali fuming at the book that focused on Mohaavraas) - did raise hopes, at least through the production quality and wonderful illustrations.

Some large school systems have brought out their own series that offers shades of improvement over the run of the mill material, as do books from established publishers. But these, too, concentrate primarily on the production quality. Thoughtless editing mars several of them.

For example, instead of actively negating stereotypes - particularly of women - that do so much damage, some actually reinforce them. Often the husband is shown coming home from work in a chauffeur-driven car while children and house-wifey dear run outside to greet him - a rather atypical situation in the home of many children who go to these upper-middle-class and elite schools. In one book mom and kids in such a scenario are even shouting out, in unison, "Hamaaray liyay kyaa laaé?" Just a few pages later, girls are shown choosing to play with dolls, while boys choose cars ... again a strange representation, today. Stand outside many of these types of schools at drop-time and see how many women (compared to men) drive their children to school or arrive to teach there.

Nationalistic lip-service to Maadaré Millat aside, few stories, if any, are ever centred around working women - except the token nurse or someone on the periphery. This from teaching or publishing organizations that are not just filled with women on their workforce but frequently even headed by them!

Poetry, one of Urdu's greatest pleasures, receives a really rough treatment. Technically wrong lines (especially in the case of mauzooniat) are often found, as are misquoted verses. This passes through not just the Editors but also, unchecked, through Urdu teachers who do not make corrections that their English-teaching counterparts would routinely make in a similar situation in the same school. Why? Because, as products of the same Urdu-rejecting education system, they know no better!

Of course, trying to point out a mistake to the school is even worse. Either - if the teacher is vengeful, and some are - your child has to bear the brunt for having a 'finicky' parent or, if you and your child are lucky, you merely get - as I did - a stupid response.
Glancing at 6-year old Ragni's Urdu notebook I noticed that in the homework given to her a word had been written wrongly (the assignment was in the teacher's hand and a letter of the alphabet in it contained an extra 'shosha').

I sent a separate polite note to her saying that she should be a little more careful as the children would think that the 'shape' was the correct one ... to which the teacher responded that the child in question was too young to read the homework assignment and, obviously, it would be read by a parent who is expected to know the correct form and, so, there really was no problem. O-kayyy....
Enter - The Deceiver: One problem that poor quality Urdu books (as well as poorly printed pirated English books) published here have created is that schools are hungry for any well-presented books in Urdu and Islamiyaat (the 2nd of the 3 subjects that children find boring for the way it is taught ... the third being Pak Studies.) I shan't even delve into the fact - at least in this post - that Urdu course books have turned almost entirely into 'Islamiyaat plus Pak Studies' books in an obviously failing effort at producing better Muslims or Pakistanis.

Nature abhors a vacuum and gaps are soon filled by matter ... but nature passes no judgement on the quality of the matter that fills the vacuum. Precious stones and bullshit are equally welcome as long as the volume is the same. So, in jump books from that misleading fraud, the phenomenon known as Harun Yahya. After all, they are beautifully published. The quality of the photographs is at par with the kind one sees in NatGeo (some may even have been licensed from that publication). The text is simple (even when it contains distortion or misrepresentation of facts).

The books have in-built protection: The subject is clothed in the magical world of 'beliefs', even the most stupid of which are difficult to challenge today - unless, of course, the view is that of a minority - for fear of offending some highly inflammable weirdo. (Even HY's own belief system does not escape distortion, intelligently 'covered' - at least for legal purposes - by innuendo and the kind of psychological weaknesses that all marketing exploits.) And - a boon in this age of multimedia - there are even videos (again, of very high quality) available that can supplement the text.
Teachers: Just switch them on. Switch yourselves off. Relax. No great damage will be done to the students, who, once the lights go off for 'projection', will either fall asleep or indulge in other productive activities.
So who can resist introducing these gorgeous books into schools? Or who can, at the very least, delete non-factual passages? Better still, who can encourage the students to debate them ... for 'censorship' isn't the best of ideas in a learning environment? Well, I don't know about who can, but I know who should: An 'educated' Principal or Teacher. Recently I said this to a school-owner and she said those are difficult to find. Hmmmm ... I have suggested that (since she is aware of this poor state of affairs and is, to the best of my knowledge, a decent and honest human) her school should carry a warning banner (like cigarette packets do): Beware - Teaching in this school is often done by people who don't know their subject.

Harun Yahya fans may be angered by my putting down someone so respected among people who, when confronted with specifics, have a question that always drives me up the wall: "Aap itnay deep mayñ kyooñ jaa rahay haeñ?"

For those who may not be aware of HY's "mistakes" (if one is feeling charitable) or "intentional fraudulent manipulation" (if one is willing to call a spade a spade - for it is unlikly that an author, with a veritable fundo-funded publishing industry behind him, would not have researched matters better), here's a link that should clarify why I feel so strongly against the use of these books in schools, especially the purchase of his Atlas of Creation.

A more recent and frightening phenomena is the showing of his videos as in-flight entertainment. This, too, must stop ... unless, in the interest of fairness, the films are followed immediately by this video.

Any ideas?

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

And then we wonder why ...

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Zore hua kis par?

Whether it's Obama using it in a speech or Annie Leonard in The Story of Stuff, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address resurfaces almost daily to contradict "The world will little note nor long remember what we say here ...".

Strangely, the vast majority of the people quoting it - from the 2 mentioned above, to hundreds more, including teachers who should know better - recite "government of the people, by the people, for the people" with the emphases on the wrong words.

Raymond Massey, after his great success on stage (late 1930s) and film (1940) often made guest appearances playing a scene or two as Lincoln on numerous stages. There's a story that on one such occasion, in 1943, when he got to those words, he too said in his booming dramatic voice "government OF the people, BY the people, FOR the people".

As the speech ended, over the cheers was heard the voice of an old man from the audience. "That's not what Abe said. He said 'government of the PEOPLE, by the PEOPLE, for the PEOPLE' ..."

The 98-year old man was just 18 when he'd heard Lincoln deliver the speech at Gettysburg, on 19th November 1863 (almost exactly one hundred years before the day when JFK was killed).

I don't know if this incident actually happened or if it's just a story, but the old man's claim sure makes better linguistic sense. (Many actors, since that day, do use this intonation while playing the part. Listen to this recording.)

There is, however, one real Massey-Lincoln story that I recall from Kermit Schafer's collectible album, Pardon My Blooper. In Abe Lincoln In Illinois, Abe, played by Raymond Massey, is leaving and standing at the back of a railroad car while the "crowd" yells good-bye. One young 'extra', overcome by being in the same room with the great actor, can clearly be heard above the others: "Good-bye, Mr. Massey."

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Wednesday, November 05, 2008


It is almost definite, unless McCain follows his predecessor's tactics and steals the election, that Obama will become the 44th US President.

I cannot recall any US Election where the whole world was so involved.

For many of my generation Obama's win will be a great leap forward from the tales we read of The Scottsboro Trials, from the KKK lynchings we knew of in our childhood (Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit still sends chills down my spine), from the backdrop of Missisipi riots as James Meredith was escorted to class, from MLK's I Have a Dream and his assassination ... and more ...

But, for me, there is also a sense of sadness: The fact that the USA did not get that other first that was possible, a WOMAN President. Some will, no doubt, state that it was Hillary - as a result of her own doings and views and personality - who lost, but I contend that no woman, regardless of qualifications or stature or vision, could have won!

America, like the rest of this male-run world, is just not ready to face the practical sides of Gender Equality.

Last week I was asked by a TV show host (off-camera, since the show had to be postponed for other reasons) why a modern and 'enlightened' USA was so edgy about a female Head of State when "we" of the Asian 3rd World, with all our conservatism and even more visible signs of the Male Supremacy Syndrome, had elected Indira Gandhi, Mrs Bandranaike, Benazir Bhutto, Hasina Mujib, and Khaleda Zia (the last 3 in Muslim countries!) to power with little fuss.

"Let's not take undue credit. Think again!" I said. "With the possible exception of Indira, who could lay some claim to having been active in her Party while being groomed for a political career by Pandit Nehru (though being his daughter helped with the votes, too) in all the other cases cited we did not vote for women. We voted for the dead men in their lives."


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