Tuesday, May 22, 2018


Last week, I did something which made me question my own self-proclaimed secularism.

(No, I didn't vote for BJP in the Karnataka elections - doing THAT would make me question my own sanity, never mind my secularism.)

Here's what happened.

My three-year-old son is going to a summer camp sort of thing, where he has music and dance classes. At his age, it's less about formally learning anything, and more about just having fun. Every day, he comes home singing snatches of songs that he learnt in class that day.

For the past week or so, he has been singing a particular song all the time. Initially, he was singing only the first verse, and he mangled it up so much that I couldn't even understand what he was singing. But then he managed to learn the second line in another couple of days, and I understood what the song was. It's a religious song, and the line he was singing was, "Sing hosanna sing hosanna to the king of kings."

I was fine with it in the beginning. He was singing this song and a couple of other non-religious songs as well, and it was okay.

But after a couple of days, he stopped singing the other songs and started singing just this song. And that's when it started getting on my nerves. I told him several times to stop, but I would catch him singing it again later.

I tried to analyze my own reaction. Why on earth did I have a problem with this? After all, I've often found myself absent-mindedly humming an earworm. I couldn't blame a three-year-old for doing the same thing!

But was my problem just that he was singing it all the time? Or was it that since I wasn't religious myself, I didn't want him to sing religious songs? Or was it more problematic still - that I didn't want him to sing a CHRISTIAN religious song?

I had to admit to myself that it was a combination of the first and the third. I wouldn't have had a problem with him singing Hindu religious songs, even though I'm not a believer myself. (Last year he learnt Asato Ma Sadgamaya and I was okay with it.)

Well, so much for my own self-professed secularism. I might say that I hated the BJP and all it stood for, I might claim that I didn't care about religion, I might proclaim my love for beef everywhere. But at the end of the day, all of those beliefs seemed to be shallow. If somebody tried to "evangelize" my son (because clearly that's what I saw the teaching of this song as), my inner repressed Hindu would come out, sword flashing.

Now the question remained - did I want to do something about this, or let it be? After all, the summer camp would be over in another couple of weeks, and I would be rid of the music teacher (he had been hired specifically for the camp).

I decided not to do anything. I confess - more than anything, it was the thought of having to actually say something to the school, and reveal what a bigot I really am, that horrified me.

But then the weekend came.

And I had to listen to the song for two continuous days.

On Monday, I went and spoke to the school authorities.

Of course, I had to retain some cover of secularism for myself. I was careful to phrase it right. I said, "Please don't teach my son religious music. I'm not religious, and I don't particularly want my son to be religious either."

But of course, the lady who is in charge of the place is sharp, and she got it immediately. "The new teacher is teaching Christian religious music, right? I don't like it either, ma'am. I'll tell him today itself."

And so that was that. My fake secular fig leaf thrown back in my face.

I'm still struggling to come to terms with my reaction, and I'm not proud of it at all.

But then, I do know that if I'd had to listen to that song for two more weeks, I would have gone mad. Seriously -- he was singing it ALL. THE. FREAKIN'. TIME. I couldn't figure out why, because it doesn't even have a particularly catchy tune. And of course, that made me even more suspicious.

Anyway, I'm happy to announce that my speaking to the school has partly had the desired effect. His frequency of singing it has come down and I hope to soon be hosanna-free.

Now if only I could go back to being able to believe in my own secularism.
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Thursday, May 10, 2018

On Re-discovering Yoga

I did most of my schooling in a government school, where I had mandatory yoga classes as part of my syllabus for a few years.

Looking back now, it seems quaint. Who thought that kids would find yoga interesting? How did it get into the syllabus? Were there no left-liberals back then to protest its inclusion? Or was yoga seen as secular back then? I have no idea.

In my school, all non-academic subjects (Art, SUPW, Yoga) had classrooms of their room. The yoga teacher had a large and airy room to himself in what was called the Science block. We had yoga classes twice a week, and we would form our lines and go to the yoga room in crocodile fashion. The yoga room had a wooden desk and a wooden chair for the teacher, and coarse and ratty red carpets for the students to sit on in long lines. We had to leave our shoes outside the room,  and of course the boys had to sit on one side and the girls on the other.

Our yoga teacher was quite a specimen. He was tall and thin and pale yellow and almost bald. He had a voice that was one notch above Mute, and an air of otherworldliness, as if most of him lived on some spiritual plane from where he could scarcely be bothered visiting us mere mortals. He was timid, and sometimes blinked furiously when trying to explain things. None of this, of course, helped him control a room full of noisy tweens and teens.

His name was Something-or-the-Other Potti, which should have made his nickname obvious. But give us government school kids some credit - we didn't go for obvious nicknames. We named him Kokk (stork), in honour of his elongated neck. Over the years, many generations of kids must have called him that, and he must certainly have been aware of the nickname. Some daring kid had even scrawled the name (KOK) on the dusty window panes in his class room. That scrawl remained remained there for many years - it may still be there for all I know.

Mr Potti (I will call him that at least now, twenty years later) had, at some point or the other in his long career, given up on ever passing on any of his knowledge to his students. And I think that was a very good call on his part. Not only was he temperamentally unsuited to the task, his chosen subject was one that held very little interest for a bunch of kids.

You see, twenty years ago, yoga didn't have the glamour that it has now. Today, yoga can come clad in lycra and spandex if you want it to. But back then -- well, if it was clad in anything at all, it was probably boring saffron. Mr Potti didn't help matters by sometimes trying to read spiritual stuff aloud to us from his books. I say "trying to", because his breathy voice didn't carry far, and unless you were in the front row, it was unlikely that you would hear anything at all.

The class would become silent each time he started reading aloud. Gradually it would become clear that there was no point in listening because you could hear nothing anyway. And then one by one, the kids would start talking, until gradually the room would become so deafeningly loud that Mr Potti would break off from his reading and bang his arm on his wooden desk in ineffectual anger, and then we would become silent again. And on it would go. Yoga, in effect, was a free class for us, with very little actual practice.

I used to feel sorry for Mr Potti back then, I remember (even while calling him Kokk behind his back). But looking back now, I realize that it's probably because of those classes that I've always had an aversion to yoga. Even after it became fashionable, and everybody I knew was signing up for it, I stayed away, because I associated yoga with boredom and with being just a little bit pathetic.

But now, at long last, twenty years later, that curse has been broken. Thanks to an awesome app*, I've started doing yoga again, and it has been amazing. Yoga, I've discovered, need not be about spirituality. It can just be something you enjoy doing, something that challenges you, something that helps you understand your body better. Yoga can be accessible, it can be whatever you need it to be.

As for Mr Potti, I suppose he must have retired long ago. I hope more of his ex-students rediscover yoga and its life-changing benefits.

*The app is called Down Dog and it's available both on Google Play and App Store. I've been promoting it among all my friends like I'm being paid to do it, but unfortunately I'm not. :|
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