“Mamaji, there is no electricity in our home for sometime and it is not going to come again before noon. Yee…”, picking up the phone of his father, Aadi chuckled without waiting for me to say a word. I had no clue why he was so happy for the reason he cited. But I had something urgent to talk to Asha, my sister. “She is not home, she has gone to Manjari didi’s place”, said Aadi giggling. What could have compelled her to go out of her house in the lock down? I was naturally worried.
“You can’t talk to her right now. But I can show you Asha didi”, Manjari’s response to my call intrigued me further. Manjari disconnected my call to reconnect on a video call. I could see Asha doing strange things. Facing a wall, Asha was jumping around, making faces, picking up things one after the other from under the table and doing crazy activities with them. She looked as if she was possessed. What had happened to Asha? I was in a tizzy.
“Why is she so agitated and restless? Why is she talking to the wall?”, I asked Manjari with a deep concern. “She is taking her class, Mama”, Manjari responded laughing. Taking class!! I was all the more confused. “Yes, didn’t you notice the laptop in front of her? Look carefully.” Manjari took the phone camera a bit closer. I noticed her throwing her hands in an animated fashion. I could hear her now- “good morning sun, good morning earth, good morning birds…” It all sounded like some kind of a prayer.
I noticed her funny dress – a nice top with a regular track pant. “She is visible only above the torso in the camera, so she is just half-dressed up”, Manjari clarified. “Her students are there on the Zoom Video call from their homes”, she added further. I was amused by the travesty of times. China is being accused of designing and spreading Corona. And, Zoom is a Chinese App that everyone is using as a solution in the Corona infested world. ‘Tumhin ne dard diya hai, tumhin dawa dena’, an old Hindi film song was ringing in my ears as I hung up the video call.
“Sorry Bhaiya, I got busy with some regular chores, so could not call you back.” I I got a call from Asha’s husband’s phone a little late in the afternoon. “Why are you not calling from your phone? It was unreachable even in the morning”, I asked her. “My phone broke this morning”, she said. “Aree, how?”, I asked. “Don’t ask, I am sick of Corona”, she said in a disappointed tone. “What? You have got Corona?”, I was startled. “That would have been a better situation, I think”, Asha responded in a very resigned tone. “Don’t you talk like this and tell me what happened,” I told her in a tough tone. She said that Aadi, her son, aged 10, had his online classes. I was still waiting for the crux of the matter to be revealed. Asha continued, “I could not spare my laptop as I had my online class. So I gave my mobile to Aadi. But Anhad wanted to have the mobile for watching his cartoons. Both the brothers had a scuffle and the phone fell and broke”. Anhad is Aadi’s younger brother and is yet to turn 3. “Oh, this means children are so interested in online learning”, I said. “Not really”, replied Asha. “We never allowed them to play with phones earlier. But now they have a legitimate right over it”. Helplessness was writ large in Asha’s tone.
“But you are doing the same, that is teaching online?”, I asked her. “Yes, I have to therefore. Like a zombie”, said Asha in a flat tone. “This is all a hoax in the name of online classes, bhaiya”, she burst out after a pause. “If this is the way children learn, why do we need teachers or even schools? Fantastic learning resources have always been available on the net. As a teacher I know how to deal with children as human beings. But we have no idea how to conduct classes for a computer. In a real physical space, all the kids are in my visual range. In cyberspace, children are reduced to funny dots on the small screen. Imagine children attending classes on phones. This is a messy screen in front of them where they are supposed to sit quiet. Impossible. Even grownups will get frustrated. For small kids, parents also have to sit to make children sit and learn”, she was so lucid as she put across her views.
“Good, no! You have support for each child in their parents”, I said as tongue in cheek. “Don’t talk of support. If they had time and inclination to teach, they wouldn’t send their children to school. It is an additional pressure for us. Some parents who never come to even pick up their own children from school are now giving advice on how to teach. They have no time. So, this is a comic relief for the parents.” She sounded bitter.
“But you teachers are doing a great job at such extraordinary times”, I wanted to pep her up. “Nothing like that. I am doing the job”, she said in an acerbic tone. She heaved a deep sigh and after a pause said, “You know this, bhaiya, teaching is not about covering the topic or syllabus. It is about the joy of learning. If education is about transformation of mind and being, it must relate to the cognitive, social, emotional and spiritual wellbeing of a child. What is happening in the name of online learning? Zilch. It requires human touch, warmth and feel. A teacher kindles the desire of learning in her students. Once it is in place, we don’t need any other resources, whether on-line or offline. Students will find them on their own.” Asha was at her eloquent best. “Give me a minute, Bhaiya, I will just switch off the chulha”. She has a joint family with 10 members. All are grounded and home in the lock down.
“We have schools because you could get employment as a teacher”, I said jokingly to lighten her mood after she joined me soon. “Yes, that is true”, she said this in a tone of resigned realisation. “Look everything is not as bad about working from home. You are at home, relaxed.” I tried to look at the brighter side of it. “You just have to go in front of the computer. No travel, no hassle, no….” “Don’t be silly, behave yourself, oh no…” Asha spoke in a harsh tone and hung up. I sank in deep melancholy. She had never spoken with such harsh words ever with me. I didn’t say anything so inappropriate. Whatever provocation, the limits of civility need to be respected. A deep frustration brings out both the best and the worst in you. I tried to console myself.
My phone rang up soon. It was Asha on the other side. I didn’t pick up. She needed to know she was wrong. She persisted. Reluctantly, I picked up the phone without even saying hello. “I am so sorry bhaiya that I had to hang up. Anhad did potty in his pants and then came to inform me about his great deed. I forgot to take him to the toilet as I got busy serving food to other members of my house. When I had to go to school, home was left behind. I was not bothered. Now, when I am home, I can’t turn a blind eye. A lady has limited choices, you know.” As she described her situation, my anger was turning into guilt. How little do we care for other possibilities before reaching a conclusion and judging people!!
“But why in a lockdown situation, do you go to Manjari’s place to conduct your classes?”, I asked. “You have seen my house. Tell me where do I find a secluded place to conduct my classes? In school, I am just a teacher. I have all the necessary support and infrastructure. At home, I have none of these. And I have all the household responsibilities plus I am also a teacher…Being a lady teacher is neither a part time job nor a luxury, you see. I must prepare breakfast before I rush to Manjari’s home. Apart from a peaceful ambiance, I get better internet connectivity there”, said Asha with a stoic profundity. “But why was Aadi so happy in the morning that electricity was not there?”, I asked. “My WiFi went off due to power disruption and he was free from his online class, that is why! Now, I will have to explain this to his teacher tomorrow”, she said as a matter of fact.
“Ok, I will talk later, I must rush now”. I had to cut short the talk. I was getting late for my office zoom call!!
Vagish Jha is a historian and educationist – based in Delhi. Follow him on Twitter @vagishkj