Building ELT Research Capacity in India August 12, 2013Posted by shonaliganguli in General.
Tags: British Council, ELT, English language, Research
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In late July I completed a week-long consultations tour at the invitation of the British Council India, visiting two locations – the English and Foreign Languages University (EFL-U), Hyderabad, and the Central Institute of Education, Delhi University.
The aim of my visit was to initiate a three year (2013-16) project plan for an ELT Research Survey of India, adapted from the UK ELT Research Directory (a British Council funded initiative for which I have been the primary consultant). The proposed Survey will, for the first time, bring information about ELT research in India onto a single, fully-searchable online platform. While The British Council is the prime mover behind this project, work is in progress regarding a multilateral partnership between Warwick University, EFL-U and Delhi University in the first phase, and growing in subsequent phases with British Council contribution and management tapering off in a planned manner.
This visit follows on from a preliminary desirability and feasibility study that I undertook in February 2012. During the trip just completed we made very substantial progress in terms of:
- securing firm commitments from key partner organisations and individuals
- formation of an academic core team with participants from EFL-U and Delhi University
- project planning for all three years of the programme.
This visit included consultations with over 30 leading academics in ELT from seven key ELT and Education organisations across India (with two joining the Hyderabad consultations and the other five the Delhi one).
Debanjan Chakrabarti, Head of English Research and Publications for the Council in India, also secured an important meeting with Dr Jagdish Arora, Director of INFLIBNET (the library network that connects all HE institutions in India). He immediately saw the merit of the project and offered to host it on the INFLIBNET server, subject to a MoU /contract that is also ratified by his organisation.
In addition to the core project consultations and planning, I also conducted a series of capacity building and mentoring symposia – two in Hyderabad (one for 40 Ph D and M Phil students, and one with research supervisors) and one in Delhi, jointly with Professor Rama Mathew, Dean and Head of the Department of Education / Central Institute of Education, for 30 PhD/ M Phil students and academics. Prof Mathew and I had previously made the final recommendations for the first ELT Research Partnership Awards, the results of which were publicly announced on 29 July.
The talk has been recorded and will be edited and shared on the British Council India website as part of capacity building support for ELT research and also to provide guidance for the next round of ELTRP Award applicants.
It was evident from my consultations with academics and other leading ELT professionals, from evaluating the ELTRP applications and from conversations with research students in ELT and Education that there are pressing needs for support and research capacity building in the field of ELT in India which the British Council is beginning to fill.
By Richard Smith, University of Warwick
From Orator to an ardent Debater March 5, 2013Posted by British Council India in Debating Matters India.
Tags: British Council, British Council India, Debate, Debate Finals, Debating Matters India, National Finals, School Debate
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Debating Matters India enriched us with experiences that made us competent in the arena of debating. It was a platform that brought our latent debating skills to the fore. We all started our journey of debating from DMI and hopefully would want to continue with it.
Unlike conventional debates, we were exposed to a forum which demanded thorough research, understanding and knowledge of the topics. We understood that debating was not only about statistics, facts and examples but with what content and passion you put forward your arguments. The topics, of course, were current and thought-provoking. It was all together an intellectual supplement. The unpredictability of the outcome taught us to be well-equipped to face any ‘uphill battle’. It was a test of our ability to respond under pressure which empowered us and sparked our enthusiasm. It developed our critical analysis, improved our confidence and enhanced our presence of mind.
The experts’ seminar was very illuminating and we were extremely fortunate to meet celebrities of various spheres of life. The programme in total was very efficiently organized, well-anchored, the atmosphere- welcoming, and the cuisine- excellent! It was a cross section of ethnical diversity and there was warm cultural exchange.
Walking past the threshold of the British Council, New Delhi, we evolved from what we were to what we have become now- confident, strong, rational, focused, research-oriented and a better personality. We advanced from being a mere orator to an ardent debater.
Paljor Namgyal Girls’ School
Debating Team, 2012-13
Leah Grace Tenzing Namchyo
Rachel Ongmu Sangay Lepcha
Ms Alka Chhetri
Scottish Dance Theatre and us – an experience we will never forget. November 1, 2012Posted by nehajaiswar in Impulse.
Tags: arts in schools, British Council, Contemporary, culture, dance, dance ins chools, Impulse, scotland, scottish dance, scottish dance theatre
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By – Mokshaa Akkamma Kuttayya, Class 12, Abacus Montessori School, Chennai
Part of a Scottish Theatre group from Dundee in Scotland worked with us for about an hour and fifteen minutes. The energy in them and their enthusiasm was contagious and all of us participated actively. They made us do some movements to loosen up and we also played some games that involved these movements. They then split us into groups and made us draw patterns on the floor across the room and also use the movements from earlier in the pattern. We also had to be coordinated within one group and use signs from each other as cue to change movements. At the end of the session they performed a small part of their piece for us in which energy they had was quite mind blowing.
Overall it was an amazing experience because none of us had ever attended any workshop or session like it. Everybody enjoyed it, even the boys (which is saying something, although they will deny it). It was interesting to see the way a dance/ theatre group works and their style of dancing was really vibrant and refreshing.
It’s that time of the season again October 10, 2012Posted by nehajaiswar in Impulse.
Tags: arts in education, British Council, British council arts, Contemporary, dance, dance in schools, hofesh shechter, james wilton, liv lorent, november events, october events, scottish, scottish dance theatre
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It is hard to forget the buzz, the busy-ness and the excitement of the Akram Khan tour. 17 days on the road and boy – what a ride it was! It has been 3 weeks since we all came back from the buzz and before we know it – it is that time again.
While we are getting to grips with workshops, talk sessions, sorting the dance mats, sorting the rehearsal spaces, pre-rigs and what not, Scottish Dance Theatre (SDT) is packing their bags for a smooth landing in Chennai next Thursday. They are a very enthusiastic bunch – a whole range of workshops and showcases await them and they are asking for more. If there ever was a packed schedule for a company, SDT’s schedule would beat that hands down.
They start their tour with workshops with school kids, dancers, under privileged children, special needs children and their teachers; a lecture demonstration with school teachers and talk sessions with technical teams. They bring acclaimed choreographies of James Wilton, Hofesh Shechter and Liv Lorent and we are just waiting in anticipation to feast on the performances.
I know it is going to be double manic – just considering the strength of the team and the places they have to be in. i know it is going to be double hectic – but I also know it is going to be fun like all the rest has been. Something about arts and its environment –the most serious problems are fun to solve, the missed meals don’t affect our bodies and even the latest late nights are fun to be lived! Cannot wait to get more action… see you guys around!
17 days on the road, 6 cities, 4,700 direct audience, 15,000 online reach – and a success story named Akram Khan Company India Tour 2012 October 10, 2012Posted by nehajaiswar in Impulse.
Tags: akram khan company, audience, British Council, cello, contemporary dance, dance, kathak, percussion, stage, violin, vocals
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Impulse, our season of contemporary dance from UK, kicked off with a 6 city tour by Akram Khan Company. After opening the London Olympics this year, Akram Khan and his company brought down their work – Gnosis – to India which is based on an episode from Mahabharata. The tour encompassed showcases and talks by Akram Khan and Farooq Chaudhry on choreographic inspirations and the business of dance respectively.
Akram was accompanied on stage by guest artist Fang-Yi Sheu from Taipei and 5 exceptional musicians on Cello, Percussions, Violin and Vocals. As much as the choreography needs to be appreciated, the live music needs much more appreciation as that sets the mood in place and adds more depth to the performance. The show was an audio visual marvel – with graceful dancing, soulful music and exceptional play of lights.
All of us who worked on the project, could not help getting emotional during the opening show in Chennai and after seeing the response. The freight not reaching on time, lights being brought in from Amsterdam, dance floors, media, the magnificence of the technicals – all were worth it!
The emotional complexity of Akram’s work talked through and the audience felt the pain, turmoil and rebellion of the characters. It was no wonder then that the audiences all over the country graced the shows with packed houses, standing ovations and cheers, much to the delight of the company.
Where Chennai saw a full turnout on a rainy evening, Hyderabad saw a full turnout on a day when dance recitals by famous Indian artists were happening in the city simultaneously. Bangalore and Kolkata were eager to witness the splendour of Gnosis; Mumbai and New Delhi saw who’s who of the dance and theatre world show up to witness the sensation that is Akram Khan.
The talks along with the showcases, were very well received by the dance fraternity – as can be seen by the participation. It was good to listen to the producer – choreographer duo as they discussed about the dreams, aspirations, business of a dancer and dance.
Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Kolkata and New Delhi audiences would never have had such a treat before. And this is just the beginning ….
Reflections August 29, 2012Posted by shonaliganguli in Re-Imagine: India-UK Cultural Relations in the 21st Century.
Tags: British Council, India, Re-Imagine, Summit, UK, Youth
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Contributor: Rachit Sai Barak, participant at the Re-Imagine Edinburgh Youth Summit
A month and a half ago when I was informed that I was selected for Re-Imagine Edinburgh Youth Summit, I was elated that I would be visiting the city at the time of Fringe and Edinburgh International Book Festival. Yes, I had thoughts about my contribution in the summit and if it was possible for a group of 12 young people to define a vision for UK-India Cultural Relationship in just 4 days. But, mostly, I was excited about attending the festival. Over the course of the summit my expectations completely changed.
On the first day when I met the other 11 participants (Well, I met 2 of them on my way to Edinburgh), I was a little bit skeptical, because of the sheer fact that we came from 12 different backgrounds. Of Course we had similar interest and some of them were part of changemakers, but we all had different agendas or so to say issues that we were supporting. We were told that over the next three days we would try and envision UK-India Relationship and highlight the areas of possible partnership. On Day 4 we had to present these outcomes to various stakeholders.
By the end of day 1 my expectations had changed, I started absorbing a lot more about our shared cultural history. In the next four days I learnt a lot of things both consciously and sub-consciously.
One of the first exercises we did was to visually depict what we were proud about our country. A question that I hadn’t answered before, call it arrogance, ignorance or insecurity. I am proud of certain individuals and emerging sub-cultures but I am not a patriot. The summit actually motivated me to see beyond my experience and discover things that I love about my nation.
On the first day, we visited National Museum of Scotland. One of the most interestingly curated museums I have ever been to. The idea was not to segregate it by period/era but by themes. The museum is not just easy to navigate through, but it also creates an image that you can remember. They have used personal stories to highlight history, one that I particularly remember is that of Jean Jenkins (1922-1990), a renowned broadcaster and museum curator whose passion was capturing and sharing music traditions from across the world. The gallery allows you to learn more about Jenkins’ travels, listen to recordings, and even mix your own global music track using our World Music Composer.
In India we don’t have any academic course on art curation, it’s not a mainstream subject that we consider important. But clearly it’s something that needs attention. Museums are accessible but are not interesting for us as students, because what we are taught in our history books is remotely close to our day-to-day lives. One of the major points of discussions was that India and the UK share a diverse cultural history and the fact that British ruled India hardly holds any relevance in current times. Our education system doesn’t highlight how India’s culture has influenced the UK and vice-versa.
Museums play a vital role in providing information about the same. We all felt that it was important for us to strengthen documentation and curation in Indian museums as well as promote exchange of exhibitions between the two countries. In the past, curators from the both the countries have collaborated; but I believe that it is important, particularly in India to engage young people in that process to foster interest in cultural relationship.
As part of our presentation, me and another participant from India, Arpita Das decided to make a short video about what people from both the countries think about UK-India Cultural relationship, we went around in Edinburgh asking people what were they proud about their country, what they liked about the other country and if they thought UK-India cultural relationship was important to them.
While most of them were deeply interested in knowing about the other country and felt that it was important for the governments to invest in cultural initiatives, there were bunch of citizens from both the countries who weren’t really interested in cultural relationship. One of them even felt that we knew enough about each other’s culture and it might be irrelevant to invest further.
Going out and interviewing people was a reality check for us. We might feel passionately about investing in cultural relations but does it hold any importance for people who live in smaller cities and rural areas, who have bigger struggles and concerns? How can we become more curious about each other’s cultures? Currently, we don’t have answers to these questions and it might be impossible to find an absolute answer. Therefore, it’s important for us to start from somewhere. As one of the participants, Heather Kitt mentioned that we shouldn’t take UK and India’s cultural relationship for granted and that we should invest in innovative programmmes that creates an open environment for people from India and the UK to communicate and learn for each other. These are the values that we feel are important to create a quality relationship between the two countries.
|See the full gallery on Posterous|
Rethinking Re-Imagine: The Edinburgh Youth Summit August 27, 2012Posted by shonaliganguli in Re-Imagine: India-UK Cultural Relations in the 21st Century.
Tags: British Council, culture, Edinburgh, future, India, Re-Imagine, Summit, UK, Youth
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Contributor: Maherunesa Khandaker, participant at the Edinburgh Youth Summit Re-Imagine: India-UK Cultural Relations in the 21st Century
Before the ReImagine Edinburgh Youth Summit, I admittedly was not entirely sure about the project’s aims. After listening to the keynote address on the India-UK relationship given by speakers from the British Council and Edinburgh University however, I started to comprehend why we do need to think about the relationship, my understanding of which grew over the time of the summit.
With a history spanning over 400 years, the relationship between India and the UK is full of intricacies; there have been many victories and failings along their journey together. The relationship has seen many shifts of power, from being partners in trade to the deeply troubled Colonial relationship; from the long awaited independence to the eventual emergence of India as a power, with Britain slowly becoming a supplement. One cannot deny that the UK-India relationship has seen periods of reinvention and rethinking.
Now the question remains – where is their shared journey taking them through the 21st Century? When rethinking the future, one must celebrate what has been achieved. This is what the British Council’s ReImagine Project is all about – it’s looking at the relationship between the UK and India in the past, and where it is in the present, to inform where it is going in the future. The project involves research, publications and debates, with input from 12 participants at the Edinburgh Youth Summit providing the youth perspective to the project, after all it is our generation that will be living the future relationship between the UK and India.
Looking at the present relationship, it cannot be doubted that so much of India is ingrained in British culture, and so much of the UK’s culture is intertwined with Indian culture – from food (after all chicken tikka is the UK’s national dish), to language (hands up if you put shampoo in your hair this morning) or to sport (cricket anyone?) and so many other countless areas of life. The relationship has produced some crucial elements of who we are in both cultures.
Nonetheless there remains potential for both cultures to continue benefitting from a relationship – perhaps the most straightforward reasons for a stronger collaboration in an increasingly globalized world include that it is vital to have strong relationships between countries for economic growth and working jointly towards advances in science and technology. Though perhaps one of the most overlooked and important reasons to consider UK-India cultural relations and their future is because there are plenty of people from an Indian heritage living in the UK and vice versa. Although we have a wonderfully diverse and multicultural society, the truth is that prejudices, apathy and hate do still exist in some parts of society and therefore must be challenged. Once these obstacles are fully broken down, the relationship between India and the UK will bring countless more benefits to all aspects of society and culture.
The ideal relationship would be a mutually beneficial one, essentially a diverse, informed, integrated, open society that cooperates for the overall betterment of both countries’ societies.
We explored a variety of different routes into achieving the vision we aspire to – the key routes including history, education and soft power. I’ll dedicate a section to each of these areas in which I will combine a summary of our discussions with some of my own points of view.
ReImagine Education: “Education, education, education changes mindsets”
(For our world café discussions on education, click here)
Whilst speaking at the Edinburgh Book Festival, A.C. Grayling highlighted that education is about relationships with other people. In a way, the more we learn, the more we want to learn, the more you learn, the more you think – this sums up why education can play a key role in rethinking India-UK relations – after all to fight prejudice and nurture openness we must be direct in the way we teach India-UK relations, how else can people rethink India-UK cultural relations if they are taught nothing about it, if they have little to no awareness of how the two cultures interweave and share a long history together?
There is no doubt that education changes mindsets, and indeed mindsets do need changing. For instance, the amount of people that asked me whereabouts in India I come from the moment they met me troubled me, then in response to informing them I’m from the UK, the usual response is “No really where do you come from?” I was born here, I’ve lived here my entire life and want to grow old here – how can someone think its acceptable to tell me directly I’m “really from” somewhere else? This is a mild example, but it shows that preconceptions do exist in people’s mindsets. Preconceptions and prejudices are enemies to a successful relationship. By reminding each other about either the UK or India’s influence and importance in the other’s culture in an honest and unbiased way we can celebrate how far relationship has travelled, our diversity and accept openness.
Language is also an effective way of understanding another culture. In the UK, few places teach the Sanskrit languages. Though English is one of many Indian official languages, surely we can have greater access and understanding of the great Indian philosophers if we could speak some Hindi for instance.
The importance of study exchange programmes was also highlighted – whilst many Indian students come to the UK to study, very few British students will travel to India to study, and this is something we felt needs to be explored.
It is important that cultural education starts with the youngest in society, but it cannot end with the youth either. The importance of celebrating our shared culture and history needs to be reinforced throughout education, and needs to reach the greater society.
Reimagine history: “You have to look back to look forward”
(For our world café discussions on history, click here)
The problem with the way history is taught in both countries, and most likely all over the world, is that it is biased – essentially the educator will teach their version of events (or at take the stance they have been told to teach). The Indian delegates at the summit said there is too much focus on Gandhi for instance, though there were many other vital figures that played a strong part in India’s independence and that there are political motives underlying the current curriculum. In the UK, it is important to have an education about the UK’s relationship with India, yes it may be uncomfortable, but after all that history was made by the actions of different people of a different time, there needs to be open discussion of it to it so there is a mutual respect and understanding between cultures. For instance, few school children in the UK learn about the soldiers of the Commonwealth nations who died fighting for the Crown, and this is something that must be highlighted.
Reimagine Soft power: “To watch us dance is to hear our heart speak”
(For our world café discussions on culture and sport, click here)
One cannot deny the importance of soft power when it comes to working on relations – this describes a nation’s power to attract people through a variety of mediums including through culture, political values and foreign policy for example.
Soft power primarily through traditional cultural mediums, is something we considered very carefully after our visits to the Scottish National Museums and to the Edinburgh Book Festival. Museums indeed provide a distilled snapshot into the culture of a country, and we felt UK-India cultural relations could indeed benefit if there was an exchange of museum exhibitions from the UK to India to which the wider public should have access, arguably it is difficult to accurately portray culture in a confined space. The director of the Edinburgh Book Festival suggested that, “each book, like a small mirror, reflects a small facet of the world” and we felt that British school children should be encouraged to read the literature that Indian schoolchildren read, and vice versa. The director also highlighted that most Indian literature that is widely available and popular in the UK tends to be written by authors with privileged backgrounds, so suggested encouraging a greater diversity of Indian authors should be introduced to the wider market. Being in Edinburgh during the Edinburgh Festivals demonstrated the importance of drama, music and literature festivals in offering the opportunity to express often unspoken issues.
It was suggested there should be an exchange of museum exhibitions from the UK to India – to which school children and teachers, as well as the wider public should be provided.
Sporting culture is a key area that was discussed at the summit as now, more than ever, is the perfect time for sport to be used as a medium to place the focus on UK-India relationships. Between now and the next Olympic games, the Commonwealth Games will be coming to Glasgow and it is in these games that India have traditionally excelled. The group discussed the possibility of “sports exchange” programmes, similar to study exchange programmes, as well as increasing access to opportunities to participate in culture specific sport, for instance Bollywood dancing in the UK, and perhaps Gaelic football in India.
Whilst we discussed many innovative ways of rethinking and strengthening the relationship between India and the UK, one cannot deny that there are major obstacles to be faced. Some of our biggest challenges include the practical issue of funding and the more complex problem of apathy.
Though there are obstacles, even where we can’t face them head on, there’s nothing to stop us trying to, or moving around them and finding alternatives. For instance, when it comes to Study Exchange programmes, in our connected world there should be nothing stopping us from participating in study programmes using the Internet. When tackling apathy however, there is a need for a paradigm shift, with education (particularly of history) playing a key part in this. Additionally, this may be where soft culture can come into play, by highlighting the aspects of each other’s culture in every day life and increasing opportunities to access sport, art or food in each other’s every day culture, perhaps we can start turning the wheels of appreciation for culture in society. For our discussions on apathy, do have a readhere for more in depth details.
This is a mere summary (albeit, still a long one) of what we touched upon during the Edinburgh Youth Summit 2012, however whilst reading this you might have come up with your own thoughts, which you’re invited to share and inform the ReImagine project. So come join the dialogue at http://reimagineyouth.posterous.com/ or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Something to remember from the summit –
“We start with ourselves, we move together, learn from each other and form a dialogue”
Tags: British Council, British Council India, Chrsi Tribble, DFID, ELT, English language teaching, Managing Change, Open University, Rukmini Banerjee
I write this on the morning flight from Calcutta to Delhi, on my way to the national launch of our global research publication on English language, Managing Change in English Language Teaching: Lessons from Experience, edited by Dr Chris Tribble.
Am lucky to have a window seat. On a clear summer day like this the vast Gangetic plain lies spread out like pages on an open atlas. The snow-capped Himalayan peaks, Mt Everest among them, masquerade as clouds that fringe the far horizon.
I fly over West Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh on my way to Delhi, I cannot help but think that what lies beneath is one of the most densely populated human habitations not only in India but perhaps the whole world. And that the British Council has substantial English language projects in two of these three states – in Bihar and in West Bengal.
Over the next few days, as this itinerant launch programme travels from Delhi to Chennai to Patna and culminates in Chandigarh, we will be taking a hard look at critical questions on education change and demonstrating the value of project interventions to all manner of stakeholders. At each stop, the panel will feature Dr Tribble and joined by several leading policy makers, ministers of education, academics, consultants, NGOs, funding agencies.
The key areas of our enquiry at each stop will be clustered around the four major strands raised in the book:
•Policy and Design
•Monitoring and Evaluation
•Embedding and Dissemination
There will be lessons for all of us in these discussions and I suspect that at each stop there will be more issues added to the agenda.
The book itself comes at a time of great change and even greater expectations in the public provision of education in India, against the backdrop of intense debates on the implications of Right to Education Act and an increasing attrition of pupils from free government schools to fee-paying private schools, almost all of them flaunting an ‘English medium’ badge. The compilation looks at the larger issues of education change and management through the prism of language teaching and many of the conclusions drawn have far wider practical application than just English language teaching.
Managing Change will be launched at the following locations in India:
City Date Venue For invitation contact
Delhi Mon 21 May British Council
Chennai Tue 22 May Hyatt Regency
Patna Wed 23 May Hotel Chanakya
Chandigarh Fri 25 May Hotel Marriott
The panellists in Delhi are:
Dr Christopher Tribble, King’s College London (editor of the volume)
Dr Rukmini Banerjee, Director, Pratham ASER Centre
Prof Rama Mathews, University of Delhi (she is also a contributor to the volume)
Colin Bangay, Senior Education Advisor, DFID India
Clare Woodward, Open University UK (also a contributor to the volume, by videoconference)
Mike Solly, Lecturer, Open University UK (also a contributor to the volume, by videoconference)
Chair: Alan Mackenzie, Senior Training Consultant, British Council India
The panellists in Chennai are:
Dr Christopher Tribble
Clare O’Donahue, British Council Senior Training Consultant and contributor to the volume
Dr V Bharathi Harishankar
Chair: Nirupa Fernandez, British Council Head English and Examinations, South India
A hard copy version of the book will be made available to all those who attend the event.
About the editor
Dr Christopher Tribble is a lecturer in Applied Linguistics at King’s College London. He has worked as a classroom language teacher in the public and private sectors in France, China and the UK, and has extensive experience as a manager and evaluator of English language projects, and as a project management trainer.
Chris also has a column in the Guardian called Weekly Words: http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/tribble
Chris Tribble’s current major activities include:
the development of a photographic archive of the work of the Teatr Polski in Warsaw
a photographic and documentation of the work of community groups associated with the new King’s Place Arts venue in London’s King’s Cross.
Chris Tribble is also a documentary photographer and provides a comprehensive photographic documentary service for organisations involved in education, social development and performing arts.
More on Christopher Tribble at http://www.ctribble.co.uk/
For more information on Managing Change launch programme in India or if you interested in contributing to the dialogue on managing change in education, write to Debanjan.Chakrabarti@in.britishcouncil.org
Charles Dickens – Smriti Daniel May 18, 2012Posted by arnabbanerjee87 in Dickens 2012, Homage from Sri Lanka - What Would Dickens Write Today.
Tags: British Council, Dickens 2012, Sri Lanka
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Smriti Daniel has made a career out of talking to strangers. Over the course of nearly a decade as a feature writer for The Sunday Times in Sri Lanka, she’s met many extraordinary people, a number of whom were writers.She made her film debut in Oscar winning director Gerardine Wurzburg’s documentary Wretches and Jabberers, for which she interviewed 2 autistic men on a road trip around the world. She has authored The Guava Tree and Other Poems
Charles Dickens is sweating profusely. He swelters, he cooks, he poaches gently in the heat and humidity ofColombo. With one hand, he wipes away the sweat that beads on the high, noble dome of his forehead.
He ignores me.
The three wheeler driver does not recognize him. His eyes are on the road, which he gazes on through a windshield decorated with stickers of Buddha and the goddess Lakshmi. They are resplendent, sitting in complete amiability side by side. It is nearing evening and Dickens has just finished tending to a twisting line of readers, all clutching his books, many of which are cheaply bound Sinhala and Tamil editions of David Copperfield and Oliver Twist (Price: Rs.180). Dickens is a little pleased, but he is more peeved. Intellectual property rights are not of concern inSri Lanka, he notes wryly to a smiling fan, but then stops his translator from conveying the message. His wrath has been sapped by the heat, and after years of campaigning he is resigned somewhat to the existence of piratebay and its cohorts.
My courage falters as I remember the copy of Bleak House nestled cosily in the Kindle in my bag, right there with all the other pirated e-books. To distract us both, as we turn down ontoGalle Road I ask him about the iOS and Android apps he helped design instead. (In one, you can save Little Nell, in the other you must help Pip become a gentleman by guiding him through a series of challenges, in yet a third, you are put to blacking shoes – the best players rub their touch screens with their index fingers so fast that all you can see is a blur.) He thinks they will be a fine addition to the merchandise he already sells – they’ll make him more than the stickers with quotes but less than the Swarovski crystal encrusted ‘Estella’ pendants. It’s tough being a novelist these days, he confesses, one must be a marketer as well. Certainly, he is good at it.
He has more followers on Twitter than Lady Gaga.
Dickens is looking for inspiration. He will write aboutSri Lankawhen he leaves, and our tourist board is hoping he will be kinder to us than he was to the Americans. After all, the island’s inhabitants have come out (and paid) in the hundreds to hear him and to marvel at his skilled re-enactments. (Our hearts warmed as Tiny Tim was delivered from certain death; we cried out in horror asNancymet her brutal end; we wept as Sydney Carton stepped forward to face the guillotine.)
I find it easy to believe that he charmed his fellow diners at the long table set up in Temple Trees. It is why he is to be given every consideration, just so that he will write something nice. Now that the war is over, we need those tourists to come. Dickens is assigned the most luxurious suite in a charming old hotel and every morning a smiling man who proudly lays claim to the title of ‘world’s oldest hospitality industry veteran’ sees him off on another adventure. He tours the museums, visits the National Archives and inspects the work of street artists on the newly renamed Nelum Pokuna Mawatha. He is given a bib and served lagoon crabs the size of his head.
He day dreams, savouring the glimpses of a dazzlingly blue ocean at the end of the thin long roads that lead to the sea.
He is introduced to the monks in a temple filled with rich carvings and convinces them to produce a modest sized Perahera for him, complete with a dozen drummers and dancers, prancing down the street ahead of elephants bedecked in yards of shimmering fabric. He gets lost for hours in the old city, where he discovers musty bookshops, tamarind juice and a pair of stylish second hand boots.
But Dickens soon tires. He will not ride in a motorcade anymore or let us take him snorkelling (though when we drive past Galle Face, he turns his head to the sea and lets the breeze tangle his long beard). Now, he looks away from the polished city. I wonder what the Minister thinks of Dickens’ intention to visitSlaveIslandtoday. There are no slaves there now, only citizens. Still, there’s no knowing what he will hear, down in the labyrinth where the children play cricket and the adults wait for their homes and their lives to be torn down as part of the city beautification program.
Dickens goes unrecognized, but the kindness in his eyes inspires trust. The children are the first to approach and then their parents follow. They tell a curious Dickens about what it is like to live in the Prime Minister’s backyard and how the land they live on is worth more with them off it. The long conflict brought its own insecurities, their windows shattered by a terrorist bomb, the occasional witch hunt for LTTE sympathisers. Now there’s uncertainty of a different kind. This conversation and others are all conducted on the stoops of houses. (Inside the tiny living rooms, Dickens feels claustrophobic and the permeable walls allow the voices of the neighbours to seep through.)
Its hours before Dickens realises he is hungry. I take him to visit the tiny shop run by Kabeer and his family of nine. There he is served a hot pastol; when he breaks it open a cloud of fragrant steam escapes out of a pastry envelope stuffed with spiced meat. Later, we walk back down to Galle Face with Kabeer and his friend Iqbal. Iqbal sells deep fried vadai adorned with prawns and whole crabs off his cart on the promenade. Howling children run across the green chasing airborne kites, lovers embrace discreetly behind umbrellas, groups of raucous boys in their underwear play on the narrow beach and down at the pier Dickens looks out over the water.
The next morning, Dickens oversleeps and we have to hurry to make our first appointment. The Welikada prison is opening its doors to him and he wants so much to meet the women incarcerated inside. He hears that the conditions are inhumane. That petty thief and murderess alike are packed in there together – jostling in a space meant for half their number. He hears that some have their children in there with them. He is first astonished, then somewhat repulsed when he is told that he will be an honoured guest at a fashion show where the inmates are to be models, and the President’s wife is the Chief Guest. He sits through it, but only barely. The women on the ramp keep their eyes trained downward.
It is the last time Dickens is left to his own devices. After the show is over, he is not allowed to approach the inmates, instead he is hustled away. Unfortunately, I have been exposed as an untrustworthy guide, he as a poor tourist. Now the rest of his trip is to be heavily curated; the great author is to be protected from any possibility of distress. Dickens rebels, but it does him no good. He returns home tanned, well fed and frustrated.
Once back inEngland, he begins to write: ‘There are times in Colombo where I am possessed of the conviction that I can taste the saltiness of the ocean on the breeze…and now I begin to suspect the very elements have followed me home.’
Tags: British Council, Dickens 2012, Sri Lanka
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SAKUNTALA SACHITHANANDAN is a lawyer by profession now living in semi-retirement inWattala,Sri Lanka. She won the Gratiaen Prize 2010 for her book of poetry, “On The Streets And Other Revelations”.
There are, still, way too many Oliver Twists around to forget Charles Dickens!! His work has made a deep and lasting impression on my mind, his attitudes strongly resonating with my own views on human brotherhood and social justice.
If he was here today he might imagine that the world has changed ‘miraculously’ over the years since ‘his day’, into the wondrous technological marvel it is now, with rockets zooming into outer space and buildings streaking up into the skies seemingly emulating the rockets, ultra sonic jets looping around the world and vast luxurious restaurants squatting at the bottom of the sea and he himself recording the outpourings of his literary genius on a modern computer !
But he would also see the swift, cancerous proliferation of wars so numerous, the mind boggles at the speed with which the conflagration spreads, fuelled by political and religious conflicts and fought with brilliantly conceived and produced modern weaponry with capabilities of annihilating whole countries in one blast. He would be shocked to observe the resultant breakdown of the social fabric and the intense suffering of ordinary men women and children embroiled in conflict situations.
He would see millions of humans starve while the privileged few live the good life, although there are sufficient resources to feed us all. He would see one disease eradicated by modern medicine replaced by another running rampant, killing those who cannot pay for necessary relief.
He would realize the sad truth that Man’s heart has not advanced with his galloping technological genius. He would discover that Man’s inhumanity to Man and Beast remains the same, if not actually worse, his brutalization going on apace.
He would see, at work, the age old mechanisms of the precipitation of the displaced and the homeless, the widowed and the orphaned , living in poverty and squalor.
Zooming down on Colombo, my city of origin, he would see a city groomed, beautiful, busy and alive with the latest in everything on the one side and full of mean shops and slums and overflowing stinking drains, teeming with the poor and destitute, on the other, many living by their wits or labour wherever they could find work, to earn their daily bread or should I say their handful of rice and parippu.
Ramu was orphaned at the age of six on a tea estate in the hills. He was farmed out by relatives with the owner of an eating house in the Pettah, Colombo. He tended to domestic chores for several years and then was taken to the eating house (euphemistically called ‘restaurant’) at the age of ten. He is now seen, aged fourteen, running helter skelter inside the dingy, squalid place, carrying trays of string-hoppers and samosas, kottu roti and kukul curry, and glasses of tea, or wiping the fly-laden table tops with a smelly grey rag with which he also wipes his face. His young eyes hide the painful consciousness of a life deprived of even small kindnesses, being told to be thankful for every mouthful of food he received, which was mostly rice and parippu curry (supplemented by left over dregs of milk tea, and morsels of food). The trauma of being sexually abused by the mudalali or shop owner and his assistant at times has left permanent scars in his very soul.Apart from the occasional movie he is allowed to see in a close by theatre, he has no escape.
In an alleyway squats seventy year old Saranelis the carter. He feels helpless and lost without his iron push – cart of goods which he can no longer push along the crowded streets. His stomach rumbles and he longs to smoke a beedi . Widowed when his daughter Sumana was but seven years old, he is now totally dependent on her, herself a mother of three children. In the morning, she begs at the foot of shrines, be they lace- curtained Buddha statues, or statues of Christ on the cross inside glass cases , or at a mosque, or a Hindu temple, whining for sympathy amongst worshippers. Two of her little ones scrabble about in the dust in graying rags, blissfully unaware of the contemptuous glances of the pious. Occasionally, she sells packets of joss sticks or camphor balls. At night she is sometimes compelled to entertain male visitors in some back room to augment her income. Old Sarnelis turns a blind eye , sleeping with the kids in their lean-to hut of broken crates in the slums, hoping for two beedis on the morrow – and perhaps a tot at the tavern?.
Sumana’s eldest child Ruwan of twelve years works as a helper at ‘Buddhhika Motor Mechanics’. Coated in grease and grime and always hungry, he scuttles around ‘learning the trade’ and is routinely verbally abused, by Gamini the mechanic. Not being a stranger to such language, Ruwan ignores this, thinking only of his lunch of two vadais and a sweet plain tea. He accidentally stumbles against a can of oil, spilling it. Gamini slaps Ruwan, and bellows that he would now cut off Ruwan’s genitals under which threat even poor little Ruwan’s hardened exterior crumbles. He stands there, fearfully clutching his filthy trousers and sobbing , Gamini laughing raucously.
Vast numbers of smug, self satisfied heartless people choose to be blind to the cruelty and injustice that even now prevails all around us. They justify their amazing indifference by putting forth bizarre theories: – these “victims” are but “sinners” suffering through their own “karma” and their origin or fate is nobody’s business. One socialist friend of mine even said, the Great Revolution was the Only Solution and until Society could thus be re-aligned, one should not bother with such folk.
The milk of ordinary human kindness has curdled in the vinegar of their veins. Charles Dickens, plainly would have plenty to write about today to shake up corroded consciences and, in his own inimitable, humorous style, like a spoonful of sugar, help the medicine go down!