Twelve Measures of Success – 1. COMPASSION

I’m working on a website for Shishur Sevay.   I’m trying out words and ideas, thinking about what we are doing and how best to communicate.  So I’ll use this blog to try out ideas and content, pictures… and I’m happy for feedback.

I was asking myself how I want to measure success.    So I came up with a list of what I thought important, and here it is, in alphabetical order.

Twelve  Girls

Twelve Measures of Success


      I.      Compassion

    II.      Confidence

   III.      Curiosity

   IV.      Discipline

      V.      Education

   VI.      Health

VII.      Heritage

VIII.      Love

 IX.      Respect

   X.      Responsibility

   XI.      Security

 XII.      Vision


Softly blowing where the blood test had been taken

The girls arrived in February 2007.  One girl came with Malaria, and high fevers that had us cooling her body night after night.  We took blood tests which confirmed the diagnosis, and started her on a full course of medicine.  The day she had her blood tests, and came home, I saw the following:


The girls were used to taking care of her, as she had been suffering in the institution.  It was their job to bring her meals when she was not well enough to go to the lunch room.


Happy kids

We were humbled.  We didn’t need to teach them.  This compassion has not wavered.  Children living on the streets alone learn to take care of each other.  The girls have compassion.  They came with it.  We didn’t have to do anything, except to just let them be themselves and let them know always how proud we were.


From Sabitri School to Starmark Bookstore – Traversing Kolkata’s Great Divide

Sahapur Sabitri Balika Vidyalaya is the local government school where the girls attended from Classes I-IV.  The Primary School ends with Class IV.  We still have one girl in Class IV, as well as Ganga who is in Class II.  I was asked to come to a meeting Friday morning.    I’ve been President of the Mother Teacher Committee, but more than that I have a strong committment to the school and to public education.  My lack of Bengali is an obstacle, but this is also the one place I tend to try out my terrible Bengali, which is always met with peals of laughter.  I’d been asked to come to give my opinion on a couple of choices the school had been given regarding uniforms and regarding a mid day meal.

Parents' meeting at Sahapur Sabitri Balika Vidyalaya

The meeting at Sabitri School was at 10 am. 
By evening I was in another place, at Starmark Bookstore in South City Mall for the launch of “Beyond Textbooks,” a new and innovative program to encourage reading by children 8-12 years of age.    I went because of Maya McManus, the young woman whose inspiration started the initiative.  I met Maya some years ago as we were sitting next to each other on a flight from London to Kolkata.  I was reading “The Hungry Tide” at the time, but my book was still in my bag.  I glanced over and saw her with the same book.  We started talking, and stayed in touch over the years mostly through FB.  She has come back to Kolkata and I was really excited to see her, and to come to the launch.  Well, I was excited, but in truth, I wasn’t sure until the last moment that I would show up.  I knew some of the panelists from other settings.  I’ve never gone to any of these events because just thinking about them makes me upset.  I’m upset because they represent a level of literature, culture, the arts, all in English, all beyond reach of my children, or any other children from schools like Sabitri.

From left to right: Rimi Chatterjee, Ayesha Das, Bedabrato Pain, Barun Chanda, Anindita Ray, and Anjum Katyal

 I LOVED what the panelists had to say about reading and about education.  These were ideas I’d been trying to instill from the beginning, ideas that come of a broader education that includes understanding material, curiosity, questioning, independent thought, and feeling.  They talked about the negative effects of TV (Remember we don’t have a TV at Shishur Sevay for just this reason).  They held the same criticisms of the Indian education system in creating students who are afraid speak, to question, to think beyond the rigid questions and answers that are the basis of all testing.  Then they presented the program of workshops that would include reading and theater, putting on a production, all the things I wish we could do at Shishur Sevay.  (Yes, of course I’ve tried!)
So here at Starmark were Kolkata’s leading educationists, professors, actors, scientists, speaking a language inaccessible to the poor.  We might as well live in different countries.  You see, when there is common language, it is possible for a child to move from one sphere to another, upward mobility.  I see events all the time but I know my kids can’t go.  Yes, it upsets me, and that’s why I usually just don’t go to these things.  For all the celebration of Tagore and others, Starmark doesn’t seem to hold programs for Bengali speaking children.    It’s fundamentally about class and economics, which is exactly the point.  That’s the divide, English and Bengali.  Even engineers have trouble getting jobs because they can’t get through an interview in English.
The situation in Kolkata is probably worse than it has ever been as we now have an accumulated 28 years of English having been removed from the primary curriculum.  Now that it is being reintroduced there is a shortage of teachers.   The children starting English now come from families where parents did not learn English.  It was a policy that trapped the poor.  It changed because families did everything they could to get their children into the private English medium schools in order to give them opportunities.  This is a culture where education is valued. 
I am always assessing and reassessing my decision to educate the girls in Bengali medium.  I still think I was right.  I thought they were too old to have to lose the time to learn another language and to start learning.  Bengali was their mother tongue, the language of their memories and thoughts.  I wanted them to sound like educated Bengalis when they spoke.  I want them to fit into a Bengali community as much as they can.  They are learning English, but like everything else it is slow.  And for the first three years I had terrible opposition to teaching them English, being accused of robbing them of their culture.  That is SO ironic because it’s what I’ve fought for, for them to have a culture, for them not to be outsiders to the celebrations, the religion, the language of their heritage.  I just don’t want them trapped there.  I want both.   
I spoke briefly with Maya afterwards.  I asked about Bengali.  Yes, she wants to, maybe the next round.   I’m glad I went.  I was forced to think more about the issue of language, and to say what is on my mind.  I want my children to be able to cross the Great Divide.

Ganga’s Pediatric Cardiology Consultation

Ganga and Dr. Dhritabrata Das

Ganga and Dr. Dhritabrata Das

Beautiful and surreal.

Forbidden movies

Ganga and Bornali: Sisters Become Friends

Ganga and Bornali

Yesterday afternoon only Ganga and Bornali were home.  Nine others had gone to an event and Rani was in the park for her afternoon walk.    I was home still recovering from my cold; teachers were gone… so it was time for some fun.  Ganga and Bornali had just been given misti doi (sweet yogurt) for afternoon snack, and per my instructions, I wanted to let them work at feeding themselves. Bornali takes her food very seriously and when the spoon became too difficult she did the only natural thing she could think of, which was to do away with the spoon and go directly to the source.

Bornali gets practical

Notice that not only has she gotten to the source, but she used her knees to tilt the tray upwards to bring the dish closer to her mouth.   A few years ago she did this with a puzzle piece.

Getting the Job Done

2008: Getting the Job Done


Bornali’s teacher was not happy with this. In the teacher’s mind, the assigned task was for Bornali to use her hands to pick up the puzzle pieces. But in Bornali’s mind, since her hands weren’t getting the job done, she used what worked for her. In her mind, the task was to pick up the piece of the puzzle. In yesterday’s task, Bornali’s understanding was that she was to eat without assistance and since she couldn’t get the spoon and her hand working right, she did what made sense to her. It seems to be what made sense to both of them.

Later in the evening Gangaand Bornali delighted in our showing the pictures.

Ganga working with her hand in 2008

The pictures from 2008 also show Ganga struggling with using her hands. I realized that she is no more able to use her hands now than in 2008. Her preferred means is her foot. Apparently she has figured out how to turn off the tv with her foot if she doesn’t like what is playing. For computer she prefers her foot.  Here she is learning from Dipak Ghosh, her role model

Learning from Dipak Ghosh, her role model

though we have just starting using a head pointer.

Hunt and Peck Ganga style

July 2011
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