Imagine a young college graduate who has volunteered as a teacher in an extremely poor school in urban Mumbai. She is trying to inspire precocious 10-year olds with stories of leaders from their country’s great history. She decides to teach lessons on Gandhi – the non-violent Mahatma.
The children had just come out of their hell-hole houses in the underbelly of Mumbai. They are all malnourished and have various skin ailments because in addition to lack of nutrition they are also deprived of proper sanitation. They live in an area that is better known for its illicit spirit – moonshine or hooch – rather than the so-called undying spirit of Mumbai. In fact the hooch-producers sell the excess liquor to the children every morning. So many of them are drunk on bad quality alcohol when they walk into their classrooms. Don’t be shocked or surprised!
Selling addictive substances to children is standard operating procedure for drug peddlers all over the world. And why drug peddlers, all sorts on unhealthy food, junk food, drinks, and games are sold to children by legitimate blue chip companies and marketing managers with degrees form Ivy-League universities. Drug peddlers are only following the management textbooks – do not waste, run efficient waste management systems while creating new customers – be it the northern border of Mexico or a slum in Mumbai; countries along the Andes or the Afghan-Pakistan border – or be it cocaine, moonshine, tobacco, junk food, fast food or games.
Children are the best customers. They are easy to intoxicate and drug; they pester their parents for more; and they have many more years of consumption left in them. The products make them feel cool and adult-like. Furthermore, they are young, so they can find work and pay for their addiction. In the worst cases, the children, who cannot pay directly, can help run the illegal organization and pay through their labour if not cash. Doesn’t it seem like the drug peddlers have trained in the best management colleges? They are effective and efficient like the managers at the best run private companies and yet practice equitable (public) distribution of their goods. These drug-peddlers reach the poor and the last mile while our governments and corporations cannot.
Many of these boys from that urban slum in Mumbai attended school in an intoxicated state. One of them was once caught saying that it was the only state in which he could tolerate the teachers and the textbooks.
Now imagine again – a young teacher-volunteer on a sunny morning caught in the crossfires of poverty, addiction, anomie, hopelessness and a managerially efficient drug-peddling system talking about Gandhi to a congested classroom half-full of intoxicated ten-year old boys.
Putting aside the smell of liquor and filth, disregarding the fact that many of the children were sleeping, and the air was dank, hot and humid, the young teacher raves on about Gandhi. She explains his non-violent exploits and his greatness; his Ahimsa and Satyagraha (struggle for and with truth), his law school education in England; his fight against apartheid in Africa and then the return to the homeland – India. How Gandhi was so moved by the poverty he saw that he gave up his western clothes and dressed like the poor in homespun khadi. The young teacher went on about Gandhi’s steadfastness to the principles of non-violence and truth and how for perhaps the only time in the history of the world a non-violent struggle led to the freedom of an entire nation; and how this example inspired Dr. Martin Luther King in the United States. The teacher knew her Gandhi and she could have sung his stories for much more time but the school bell rang to announce the end of the session. The teacher was perspiring at the brows but she looked happy. She seemed to be congratulating herself in her own mind. The boys has been quiet.
But being young she did not know when to stop. She did not want to leave the lecture at just that. She wanted her students to continue thinking about Gandhi. So she announced that each of them would write an essay on Gandhi and submit it the next day. She wrote it out on the board: A 500-word essay on Gandhi to be submitted tomorrow.
A lone hand went up. The teacher smiled, she thought she had inspired at least one of them. The malnourished boy stood up and asked: “Ma’am, which Gandhi do you want us to write about?”
The young teacher was perplexed. Her spirit sank (maybe she could have benefited from a shot of moonshine herself) and she replied: “But, didn’t you hear a word of what I said in the class?” Theatrically, the teacher opened the history textbook and showed a picture of Gandhi from the book.
The young boy was not one to give up so easily. He pulled out a crumpled five hundred-rupee (currency) note from his pocket, kept it in the desk and pressed it flat with his hands. He then raised the currency note dramatically and a picture of Gandhi stared at everyone.
The boy said:
“Teacher, there are two Gandhis in my world. The Gandhi whose picture you showed in the history book and this Gandhi who is on the currency note. This Gandhi on the currency note elicits very different behaviours from the Gandhi in the book. The Gandhi in the book is all that you said. The 500-rupee note Gandhi brings out the worst in people – the opposite: people are mean, cruel, uncaring, punishing and extremely violent in their quest to get more of the 500-rupees.”
And pointing to the note again continued:
“People kill their own mothers for this one. And this is the Gandhi we see and learn from every day – this one on the currency note.
So which Gandhi do you want me to write about?”
The other boys, oblivious to the dialogue between teacher and student, had started talking and throwing paper missiles at each other.
Before our young, idealistic, volunteer-teacher could ay anything the head-master walked into the classroom and started thrashing some of the boys for disturbing the peace in the school.
“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
Absurd, isn’t it?
© The Absurdist @ The Essayist