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My Life: Religion in Reality

The Holy Quran at Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon

The Holy Quran at Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon

Two days back, I was standing in the Portland Art Museum staring at a beautiful Quran which had illustrations made of gold and lapis lazuli. The beauty of the illustration caught my attention as I was walking away from a Native American Fashion exhibit. In a few seconds my thoughts drifted to a conversation I had with a best friend in college (I think it was in 2009). As the holy month of Ramadan begins, I want to share a part of that conversation here. Years ago, when I was going through a rough patch, my best friend then told me something that helped her tide past tough times in her life. I do not know how accurate my understanding about this topic is. May be someone who is an expert on these topics can correct me if I am saying something wrong here. But why is it important for me to share this?

It was one of those rare occasions when someone from a different belief system helped me retain faith in God while not talking in the same language of faith I grew up around.

We were sitting in our college’s parking lot in the back of my dad’s car (Strangely, I have a photograph of both of us from that day which another friend clicked on my phone!!). By then I had cried for about 20 minutes when my friend said to me,
“Arre sun, tereko mein ek baath bolthi Padmini. Mereko nai maloom ki tereko yeh sab mein yakeen hai ki nai. Lekin mereko bolne ka mann karra, so bolri. Humaare mazhab mein ek baath sikaathe humko. Quran mein bhi likha hai. Jisne bhi apni zubaan se kabhi bhi ek bhi galat baath na kahi ho, woh zubaan se nikli dua hamesha Allah tak paunchthi hai. Aur ek aisa bhi hai ki ek bhi insaan nahi hoga jisne kabhi apni zubaan se galath baathein na ki ho. Lekin jo bhi galtiyaan hum karthein hai, woh sab hamaarein hi hai. Isliye, jab kisee aur keliye tu dua karegi, woh dua Allah manzoor karega kyun ki, doosre insaan ke hisaab mein tho tere zubaan ki galtiyaan maaf hai.”
[Listen, I will tell you one thing Padmini. I don’t know if you believe in all these things I am telling you. But I feel like telling you. So here it is. We are taught something in our religion. It is written in the Holy Quran also. A mouth(zubaan) that has never uttered a sinful word, a prayer spoken from that mouth always reaches Allah. And there is also this saying that there won’t be a single human who has not sinned ever by speaking bad words. However, a sinful word spoken from one’s mouth is their own and a prayer from that person for another human will always be a clean prayer. So praying for someone else will be the best way to make an honest prayer that the Allah will bless.]
I don’t know how well I have written her words in English. But these words have been a guide for me since then. Since that day, I always found solace in praying for others more than myself (That doesn’t mean I am not kicking screaming and blowing my nose away on hurtful things. I do the whole drama also :). Well, I do pray for myself to ask for all the materialistic things that I want and to occasionally give Him my thanks for gifting me a wonderful life. Jokes apart, that conversation helped me come over a huge set back in 2009 and since then, I have always bounced back from so many situations that would have definetely broken my spirit if it was not for all the spiritual help I had around me. And the beauty of the life I experienced so far is that when I went through a time of questioning the belief system I grew up around, my best friends who were Muslim, Catholic and Sikhs helped me find my way back to believe in a power that was beyond the understanding of my small brain.
When I stared at the beautiful lapis lazuli and gold illustrated Quran pages that day, her words rang in my ears. The words that she said to me, how I constantly use them in my life to tide past tough times made my eyes well up. She was a great friend. She was always there for others despite having a tough life herself . I learnt to cook Palak curry from her (see there comes my food reference!), learnt a great deal about Islam from her(She taught me to wear a hijab which I still use today in the hot Texas sun. It is amazing how airy it is and how you can hide your face completely! :)), realized the value of having a cursive handwriting from her (she used to say, kaiku kharaab karri tera handwriting aisa waisa likkhe? howli hai tu!!), and learnt from her that staying strong in the face of adversity was a hidden untapped talent that women are naturally gifted with. We also often spoke comparing the good things and the not so good things we experienced for practicing our own religions (If I publish all that here, I will be removed from all the countries I ever lived in hahaha). We talked a great deal about the foods we cooked. Our discussions were so animated that, one night when we were both posted for a night duty, I went to sleep listening to her describing how they cooked chicken biryani and trust me, to this day, I can narrate to you all the steps that are followed in cooking chicken for biryani 🙂 It is hilarious when I look back at all those memories. I even did a fashion photo shoot for her in a burqa. I can never publish the photographs unless she would ask me to. I will wait for that day.
I don’t know where she is today. She just disappeared from all contact points after college. May be she wanted no part of that life we all struggled to make it through. This Ramadaan, seeing that Quran brought back all these memories to me. Ismat, where ever you are, I pray and wish all the best for your life. I never asked her if I could share her photo publicly. But today I want to. If I receive an objection or a note from her or her family, I will remove the image from here. But for now, I want the world to see the image of one of the best humans I knew growing up in my city, Hyderabad. She reminded me to keep faith in my Hindu gods and she was a staunch Muslim.
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NIDIA 20: Distant Dreams

He complimented me about living in a nice part of the metroplex and said I made a good choice to go to school in Denton. 

SB: “I came to the US eleven years ago. Went to school here and graduated from high school. Are you from India miss?”

I uttered a how did you recognise me to be from India while laughing my heart out [It is not hard for people. I wear a bottu always]

He smiled and asked me “Don’t we all from outside the US look a lot same like people from one country miss?” He continued talking. “I was raised as one of the many children for my parents in Liberia miss. So, what do you go to school for? Nursing? Lots of Indians are doctors and nurses. Do you know that hospital on Independence, Presbyterian something? They have a lot of doctors from India there miss”

I am in Adapted Sports…[pausing a second to say] like Paralympic sports..Do you know about it?

SB: “Oh yeah! you guys do that sports thing with peoples who have disabilities right? That is such a blessed work. So nice so nice miss!”

I paused a bit before I continued talking because I didn’t know his name and I am so used to conversing with people by using their names where ever possible. “So, have you seen any adapted games in live?” 

SB: “No, but we know. They are everywhere these days. You see ads and all and then you see so many friends sharing these videos on Facebook always. It is amazing that people who don’t have hands and legs can do so much!”

Does Super Shuttle treat you well?

SB: “Oh yeah! I work 5 day/week. They are very fair and nice people at work.

That is good! Its good to know they treat you well! So you help your family back home? You send them money?

SB: “Yeah, I send $100 and that is about 8500 money back home. Helps a lot to send even $100…So… You get scholarships? A lot of Indians I pick up every week. All of them in colleges. Every Indian takes college seriously. Always working hard in college. No fooling around. So many rich Indians in Plano and Frisco. So nice to know hard work pays someday.”

[By now I was smiling and imagining the multiple factors that contribute to the ‘high’ number of Indians in Plano and Frisco. And coming to many Indians in colleges, I can’t but wonder how many even know where they are headed.]

I break my thoughts and say, “Yeah, studying beyond high school is important and for some people it works. They have help. Turning back looking at me with a smile in his eyes, he nodded affirmative. 

SB: “Yeah, my brothers and sisters are old enough to come and work here now. I am processing the papers and they should come here soon. I want to save enough for myself also because I want to go to college too. Someday.. Now if they come and can earn too, we can all go to school. So, do you get a scholarship miss?”

I am on a student loan for tuition and an on campus job pays my bills. 

SB: “Oh, that is good! Very good!”

You can sometimes qualify for some university programs that will help you pay for college but that will put you out of work because you should go to school full time then. 

SB: “Yeah, that is nice but I can’t do that now. But once my brothers and sisters come here, I will definitely try to apply for such programs. Thank you for telling me. I never thought of such options.”

Do you know that some of my most favourite songs are by a Jamaican band called Boney M?

[I cannot believe to how many people of African heritage that I have introduced Boney M. It is like I am born many years after they stopped singing but I am still stuck in their peak years of music]

I played the song on Youtube for him on loud volume and he was all tearing up listening to that song. I quickly scribbled the song’s name for him on a piece of paper as we pulled into the airport. 

SB: “In my country, there are so many languages. Don’t know what language this is but the music reminds me of home..my country.. I haven’t gone home on 11 years. Next year I want to go home.. [He broke down and kept wiping his eyes with his collar]

So you are finally going to meet your family? 

SB: “My parents are long gone. When we were kids. I just miss my country and my home. I will go next year if I am lucky”

I got down the shuttle, gave him a ten dollar bill and told him, “this is not a lot but I want you to continue and believe that your siblings will come here. You will all be family again. I want you to go to college some day and feel proud of what ever you want to pursue as a career. I want you to help more Liberians study and do well.”

For many of us, we get to eat a meal we crave for, buy what ever we desire and watch a movie we want to. Our family ( or parents) are a call away. Or even sometimes, hardly a plane ride away. But unfortunately how often I see that these exact blessings are so invisible to us. We don’t realise how irreplaceable these people are and how invaluable their presence in our life is. We are lost in our own perceptions and pains leading everyone around us into a vicious cycle. I wonder how would the same perceptions and pains take shape if one is made to face the decision of their life with life and death on either sides of one single choice one has to make: Like leaving one’s country for almost forever to find a safe job to work in and send money home.

I was on my way to a vacation last Thanksgiving and this conversation happened. I got on the flight with a lump in my throat and cried out (while writing this in my journal) till I could almost forget the look I saw in Sangray Bangalee’s eyes. It is a curse sometimes when you can be sensitive to other person’s suffering. Everyday when I pray, I wonder if his siblings are here and if they are all one happy family living together. Sangray’s case is not alone. We cannot solve all the world’s problems. But we can at least regard what blessings we have. We can share our blessings with others. That is all that we can do as mere humans. Otherwise, we will, as a human race continue to grow in numbers but be of the worst possible quality.

 

 

 

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NIDIA 19 – My pen has been lost by me!!!

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When: 2nd September 2015

Where: On Reliance Global Call 🙂

Several years ago, my father introduced us to a cousin of his. When my father respects someone with his whole heart, it is difficult for us to miss feeling the same warmth about that person. It is probably the way my father introduces these people into our lives. My father never missed a single opportunity to talk about this cousin and about how great a human being he was. Every now and then I met my dad’s cousin at social gatherings and it was always casual conversations and funny things that elders say to kids in large families :). I still don’t know if it is a good habit but I like to observe people when they are conversing with others. I saw this man over the years in many different places talking to many different people. Nothing about him was ever artificial. Every word he spoke, every blessing he shared, they all felt like they came straight from his heart. There are these few people you meet, who smile with their eyes. He and his wife are one of those few people I know whose kindness can fill a room and make your heart beam every single time you meet them.

Fast forward to 2015, one day when we finally got to ‘chat’, Facebook gave me the chance to ask for his number . He was quite surprised when I called him as soon as he sent me his number. He picks up the phone right after two rings, and has the same warmest greeting that he always had for me when I would meet him in person. For people who know me well, when I am happy, I am talkative. Like read talkative in bold, UPPERCASE and underlined in red 🙂 We talked and talked and talked. I think we spoke for over an hour [ If I wrote the whole conversation here, it will fill a book :)]. So many random things in education we talked about and none of it needed elaboration. Words just flowed and I could just understand them as is. To be sharing a conversation with a great teacher like him and enjoying it was like a dream come true for me. The joy of sharing a conversation like that with the person who has been my inspiration to pursue a profession in teaching, indescribable. Every minute of that one hour, inside my heart I was lamenting why I never got to work or learn under the guidance of teachers like him when I was in India. Half way through the conversation while I was filling him in on my work, he has this childish excitement in his voice and says,

“Padmini! I want to tell you about two incidents that will make complete sense to you.”

And obviously my response was, ” Cheppandi peddanannagaru!”

If I type them out in his own words, I might do some justice to the beauty of that conversation I enjoyed.

RRB: Oka roju, naa deggaraki, oka pillavaadu vachaadu. Vacchi, budhiga chethulu kattukoni (by now he is smiling while narrating this), Maastaaru pennu poyindhi… annadu.

Myself: Smiling and almost getting where this was going. I almost started laughing here. Was too excited to have understood where this was going [You can ask him if you want]

RRB: Nenu anna, yera, malli cheppu. Vaadu malli, Maastaaru, pennu poyindhi..ani inkaastha nemmadhiga, jaagratha cheppaadu.

By now I couldn’t stop laughing loudly. His subtle manner of narrating the entire incident was so powerful and hilarious. [ two of the many great qualities in great teachers: to capture the attention of their student fully and to engage them completely till they finished speaking :)]

RRB: Malli cheppara annanu. Appudu vaadu, Maastaaru, nenu pennu pogottukunna annadu. [ By this time, I was almost repeating the last line with him]

We both burst out laughing for over a minute there.

RRB: It was important to make him realize that he was responsible for losing an object that he could have kept safely. It is important to teach children to own responsibility for their actions early in life and I find that things like this are not taught in schools anymore. The focus is all on grades and exam scores these days.

Why this one hour’s conversation made me so happy?

I got to talk to a teacher in India who grew in his role to become an educational leader, guided thousands of students to success and yet, was one of the few most humble teachers I have grown up watching.

The honesty in his words and the simplicity in his teaching are two things that I will always aspire to acquire.

Almost five years after I survived the worst time in an educational setting, here I was, beaming and listening to the joy in a teacher’s voice for being a teacher. A person who has been through my age, worked hard to do the best for his students was talking with such pride and satisfaction.

20 years back when my dad introduced me to his cousin, I did not think that he will be the biggest inspiration behind my endless desire to teach and lead. Over the years, observing him, sharing small conversations with him and listening about him from my father have all influenced me to pursue teaching as a profession. Being almost the only Indian in this specialization here, doing something entirely new with no one to follow, I sometimes feel like I should give up [ to all my friends who are narrowing their eyes on me, don’t judge me like you don’t have one of those days yourself :)]. On one such days recently, I made this phone call and I swear it has changed my life.

Babbepalli Raja Rao garu, as he is fondly called in the family, peddanannagaru as I dearly address him, is the person who has renewed my hope to be a teacher right on the day when I was getting lost in my way. Hearing one of your own, your biggest inspiration,  tell you that you are doing the right thing and that you shouldn’t give up just yet is a blessing.

Peddanannagaru, thank you for that conversation. It will always remain etched in my memory as the most precious gift from my teacher. That conversation reminded me to own responsibility for myself and to enjoy my schooling to become a teacher one day. And yes, I still owe you a trip to your village and I can’t wait to come home next time. 🙂

Amma and Daddy, thank you for giving me this life to experience beautiful conversations like this.

Yours Sincerely,

Padmini 🙂

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NIDIA 18 – Mind your business Padmini

When anyone tells me I can’t do anything, I’m just not listening anymore

-Florence Griffith Joyner

Five years back during a clinical rotation, one of my supervisors instructed me to mind my business in response to a question I asked her. I was an inquisitive undergraduate student who asked her, ” ******** ma’m, what does ***** (referring to the child with disability) do when he goes home after the therapy session?” And the title was her answer to my question also followed by, “Why does it bother you to think beyond what you are told to do?”. All this while she is rolling her eyes and exchanging looks with her colleagues.

Why did I ask her the question?

The child who was receiving therapy was a 14-year boy who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. His mother carried him to the department every time he came down for physiotherapy. He was taller than his mother yet she carried him every where they went. He went to a private school that denied his promotion to higher grades after a certain grade. They just couldn’t provide him with a lift to attend the classes on third floor and also refused to move the class. I asked my supervisor that question because everyday this boy went back to an almost nil physical activity situation at his house. He was beginning to gain weight and his mother struggled to carry him with each passing day. Lack of physical activity was also affecting his overall health (muscular and cardiovascular health). For my brain, the obvious thing to think was, “Is there a way for us to get him to move more every day? Can we arrange for assistance? “. I was told to shut up and not think beyond delivering physiotherapy interventions that were so archaic that it would make the relics in Salar Jung museum look new.

Fast forward to a couple of weeks back when Dr. Kalam passed away. I won’t lie. That week I almost went back to every Youtube speech that was available of Dr. Kalam. Many of which I never heard before. Of all the questions students asked Dr. Kalam, the ones that stood out for me where the ones that revolved around ‘education/scientific research system reform’ in our country. The above scene from my undergraduate days is exactly the reason why Indian education system is so messed up. It is because a majority of ‘faculty’ in educational institutions are ‘never’ trained to be teachers.  They are trained to work as clinicians, law enforcement officers, so on and so forth. I will refrain from commenting about faculty in engineering or technology related fields. In fields that involve human beings as the clients for health related direct services, how many teachers are taught and trained to be teaching in classrooms?

What happened to me and what happens to a lot of students in classrooms across India is that we are told not to question. We are only supposed to follow instructions

Rewind back to my physics class in high school, I once asked my physics teacher why a particular reaction would give that particular result. I was told to shut up and just read what was in the textbook. I am sure I am not alone. This must have happened to many of us. Training to be a teacher does not end at earning a degree. It is a constant process. It is never ending. You are always working with your students and they are always training you to be the best teacher you can ever be. The teachers who have that attitude towards their jobs are the history makers.

What am I trying to say here?

Reviewing through pages legislation and policies for education in India, I understand that:

  • India’s education laws are archaic (almost)
  • Most of the Acts that guide the delivery of education services in our country are very vague
  • Where there are a few good and modern clauses in those Acts, there is a gap between enforcement and reviewing of the service delivery
  • Teacher training guidelines are very generic and lack clear instructions on addressing the needs of each specialization. There is a lot of ambiguity. 
  • Guidelines still show a lack of connection to the real world
  • Use of technology is missing in the teacher training scene
  • Websites of most of these organizations need serious updating (I am thankful for the fact that the ministries have their websites updated)

How can we begin addressing this situation

Only when more urban Indians with financial and social security take up professions like teaching will we be able to start a change. Please I am not referring to Teach for India. I am talking full length walk of B. Ed, M. Ed, M. Phil, PhD that kind!

More students/parents should question the quality of education that is delivered in private institutions too. 

Reading more about the legislation in our country is a great way to begin understanding the system.

Without spending time to read about the history of a problem and the legislation associated with it, we will be wasting our time every time we complain on social networking.

Like every student of science knows, if scientific questioning is not encouraged in the schools, we cannot produce citizens who will love their education.

And only students who will love the education they receive will be interested to become researchers. There is a severe need for more research and publication of data outlining social phenomena in our country. So before we start getting disheartened every time a negative news is reported, spend time to look up the research conducted in India on that specific topic. You never know what might ignite your mind. 

~SriPadmini Chennapragada aka Jussri

10th August 2015

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NIDIA 17 – Enigma of India’s Education Problems: Possible Solution? You decide!

Reform in India’s Education System will be a reality only when more teachers feel encouraged to participate in the planning activities organized by Government agencies (both state and central).

Below is the brief overview of the pain and mistreatment that was meted out to a group of educators from around the country at #NCERT. If you are wondering what #NCERT is, please click here  (~If you completed your schooling in India, I am sure you used NCERT textbooks every now and then)

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I was introduced to Ram  by an American professor when I was looking for professionals serving individuals with disabilities (IWD) in India. Ram has been working to empower individuals with #Autism through #Arts4Autism for years now. For most of us who don’t know a lot about the education industry, the financial remuneration is never high in these fields. [Read fields= ones that directly and indirectly service individuals with disabilities (IWD)] . I don’t know a single genuine teacher who is financially a millionaire for:

  • loving their students regardless of who they are and where they come from.
  • for being creative and helping each one of their students succeed.
  • for going beyond their job descriptions to ensure that their students get the best of everything that can be made available to them.

Complaining that India’s Education System is not great, not up to date, will not help…. I have heard these being said for years now. Oh god! you don’t know how much I complained for years. Ask the people that share my life. But all along those years I never stopped finding solutions. I never gave up. I sucked my anger and disgust in. Every time I faced an insult, a discrimination, I swallowed it in and chugged along (while also endlessly yapping about it to my loved ones)because I know I can’t change haters. I know I can’t change the way cynics express their endless doubts. I know I cannot stop people from choosing money over service.

I can only work hard to get to a position where I can start being the change.

Scores of Indians are working in many professions to serve #IWD in India. When I read updates like Ram’s, I am pained beyond words. In today’s digital era where discussions are all so ‘electronic’ and ‘eternal’, I can’t afford to be angry. I can’t afford to be rude no matter how disturbing the facts are.

I will forever work to be a good teacher.

A teacher who will care. A teacher who will be fair

I don’t want to write harsh things about organizations/agencies (referring to NCERT here) that will decide the fate of my students and future education in India. So I will only beg and plead from the citizens of India to get involved in spreading the word. One thing to remember is that reform and improvements take several years of selfless work from teachers, students and parents everyone.

So if you are one of those Indians who complained about our education system, please share this and spread the word to start making a change. If you ask me how will sharing this make NCERT or similarly functioning agencies to change their behavior, I will say this:

A crime that is unreported will always leave a criminal on the street to attack  their next victim. Please don’t let this incident be forgotten. Read through Ram’s narration of his experience, put yourself in his place and tell me, ” Can you survive in a profession that will treat you like that?” I am sure this is not the first time this happened to a teacher in India. And yes, if it is indeed the first, it should be the last. No one deserves it.

This article is a part of my advocacy efforts for #inclusiveindia.

Only when we have happy teachers and educational administrators will we have successful reforms. Please help me join forces for this cause.

~ Jussri aka SriPadmini Chennapragada (30th July 2015). 

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