Until I spoke to Ganesh, I thought I understood what learning was. I met Ganesh in 2003 in Mumbai. He was a blind in one eye street kid. He spoke some English, we talked a bit about his life, where we came from, the weather, the usual stuff. He showed us around for a while and we came to a local supermarket somewhere off the Colaba Causeway. To thank him for his help I bought him rice that came in a white linen bag with carry handles. He was grateful, so were we.
He had attended school but now needed to help his mother care for his siblings. He said he could read so I told him to read as much as he could, more, as much as possible. In the Cafe Leopold I sensed the absurdity of such contrived advice to an 11 year old boy whose priority was survival. How uselessly abstract in this world of poverty, and I called myself a teacher? For days after, for years beyond that I felt I had ridiculed my own faith in literature. I began to doubt the power of books to change anything. Change is either loose coins in your pocket or an ideology. Reading had expanded my world, made it bigger. I had the luxury of imagining possibilities beyond my circumstances. Later studies in literature affirmed my devotion to writing but taught me to respect words the way you respect the sea for fear of it drowning you.
My time in Mumbai reminded me that Art, like God, is a personal thing. One’s own journey through either is not a template for humanity. Ganesh shone a light on my doubt. It has remained illuminated. I’ve learned to live with my ignorance. Maybe I don’t really teach. Sometimes it feels more like I’m assembling data as determined by policy makers who are in turn determined by elected officials whose priorities are in turn determined by elections. I feed a gargantuan social mechanism whose primary function is consuming basically functional, highly maleable cogs. I myself am also a cog.
So I don’t know much about learning. Twenty five years of teaching doesn’t build a skill set, it elevates ignorance to a more sophisticated level. It has enabled me to recognise the academic pretence of “experts” and see the greatest obstacle to learning is that their rhetoric has become the language of education. Teaching has become the craft of bureacratic window dressing, of marching young minds painstakingly through the ever narrowing arch of the final examinations. Years of ‘rigorous’ assessment press fresh minds into stale social moulds.
The term education is derived from the Latin word ‘educere‘ which means ‘to draw out’ or ‘to bring from’. Learning should not be about placing knowledge into people, that is what propaganda and politicians try to do. Besides, what is knowledge? Something to talk about another time perhaps? Education, in the real sense of the word, works from the inside out. Teachers ought to ignite within students the desire to know more about themselves and their world in order that they might extract from within themselves the means for living a meaningful life. In this respect I believe that teaching is a noble profession for what it professes to do-draw out of young people the best they have. Teaching, therefore, doesn’t pass knowledge on, it shows us where to look and where we start is where we end, with ourselves.
I believe schools are inherently places where learning is desired. I suspect it happens despite teachers or curriculum. It is possible that what we learn is simply what we need to know to survive life. And survival is what all of us do. Some do it in style in expensive mansions, some in surburbia and others in shanty towns or on the streets. I believe wisdom is what we learn about being alive and education is the commodity we purchase to make living comfortable. In the interim, between the wisdom and the knowledge, there is something far more important, love. Despite the trudgery and sadness of this flash of existence, we have to keep an open heart.
I photographed this lady as we passed a beach close to a small community near the Sassoon Docks in Mumbai.
I never saw her face and would not have photographed her if she were facing me. She walked to the edge of the beach with graceful dignity as waves crashed into shacks lodged precariously on the side of an embankment. She fixed her gaze on the horizon and did not look back for a long while.
Featured image: A washer takes a break in Dhobi Ghat, a huge open air landrey where the linen from the best hotels in the city are sent for cleaning and pressing.