“Let’s be friends”, Bhupi looked at Zara and extended his hand. Zara, a young kid of 10 years, is the daughter of our tailor master and was selling handmade necklaces to people coming in for the workshop.
“I don’t want to be your friend,” she said, holding my hand and trying to take me away for delicacies that were being prepared.
“But, you have to be. If you can be Yukti’s friend, then you have to be mine as well.”
I looked at both of them. Bhupi was clearly enjoying himself and Zara had a look of annoyance on her face. Looking at Bhupi, who was a total stranger to her, she said “I don’t have to be your friend and it’s my choice”, and off she went. Watching this young little girl’s defiance as she stood up for herself filled me with pride and hope. A hope that our country’s burgeoning demographic dividend is in safe hands.
But I often wonder, is Zara an outlier because she had the opportunity to be home-schooled by some very talented people? Or does our education system also teach kids to think, ask, and wonder? Sadly, I am inclined to confirm the former is true.
India will be the world’s youngest country by 2020 with an average age of 29, making it the largest young workforce in the world. It is this workforce that decides the social, economic and political future of our young democracy. It is imperative that these young minds are taught how to think independently and ask questions rather than fill their heads with “facts”. A world where xenophobia and extremism is on the rise, giving way to reactionary violence, are we educating our young minds to be tolerant, reasonable, and kind?
I come from a disciplined and orthodox Brahmin household, where Brahmin supremacy and casteism has always made me uncomfortable. The idea of a person born into a ‘superior’ caste and therefore respected has always eluded me. Conservatives are always inclined to preserve the fabric of society and tout the fortune of being born in a Brahmin family. But shouldn’t our dictum be “Live and let live”? Respect for hierarchy, values, and purity are often hallmarks of collectivist social or cultural groups as opposed to modern, liberal thinking. But can the seemingly dramatic increase in our country’s growth go hand in hand with individual suffering?
I was taught the different sub-castes among Brahmins, and the allowed sub-castes for matrimony. A more liberal mindset and modern outlook has opened the doors for children choosing their partners themselves. Even though I come from a privileged background, I was asked to finish school and college with straight As, get a job, and finally, get married. Luckily, I have complete say in picking my life partner. A right which should be as normal as freedom of speech, but it comes with a few caveats, like not being allowed to marry outside your caste if you are a Brahmin. (Well, you can replace Brahmin with your caste because casteism or regionalism is all pervasive). Also, not getting married is not an option. I am the ‘responsibility’ of my parents. And my gender, again a stroke of luck, matters. He has to be a Brahmin (“He” and “Brahmin” are the linchpins here for the sanctity of my marriage). If I stray, society will not accept me. Unthinking reverence of traditions can easily give birth to an insidious form of ideological coagulation that often leads to oppression and exploitation, as well as stagnated progress, change, and equality.
All daughters are put through that stifling “Good girl conditioning”. It supposedly makes you a likeable woman, but all it does is create a problematic idea of a good woman.
I always scored well in school because rote learning isn’t a great skill, but a skill nevertheless. I settled into a monotonous but comfortable MNC lifestyle post my engineering degree, and I felt I was losing myself every single day. One day, I came across Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”. It talks about imagining prisoners chained in a cave throughout life, and all they can see are shadows on the wall, they cannot even turn back to look at the fire burning behind them. Their reality is restricted to only shadows. Somehow one of the prisoners breaks free and is introduced to the fire’s light, and eventually sunlight.
And that’s how I applied to a fellowship program in the liberal arts. That’s where I met Zara and other children from low-income households. Fellows worked to provide them with an alternate form of education,where creativity is nurtured and questions welcomed. Further, improving their ability to read and write would (apart from improving literacy rates) equip these children with the ability to think, contemplate, and form their own views.
I learned from these children as much as they learned from me every day. My fellowship introduced me to the world of social sciences and slowly built up my confidence, resilience to make mistakes and own them. The questions I always had finally found a voice.
India has the world’s highest number of 10 to 24-year-olds, (242 million), India surpasses even China (185 million). But as measurable as employability is, the importance of learning life skills is of much greater value.
Education is a silver bullet. We don’t need small changes. We need monumental ones. We need to teach our kids tolerance and empathy in a world increasingly becoming hostile. Decision-making backed by critical thinking and analysis has equipped me to take chances and work on issues that really matter. It has not only made me socially conscious but has also freed me from herd mentality.
The future of this young secular democracy stands on the shoulders of 242 million young people and allowing them to be the best version of themselves is something we owe them.
The thread necklace Zara made for me is one of my prized possessions. It will always be.