I first read about the coronavirus on a news app that provides bite-sized news, in January 2020. A quick read through didn’t quite evoke a sense of alarm and I brushed it aside, not thinking much of it. There had been similar episodes in the recent past such as the nipah virus outbreak and ebola in Africa. Neither caused much concern among the general public and so why was corona receiving undue attention — was what kept playing on in my mind.
In the days to come, I noticed COVID-19 was receiving increasing coverage across all media outlets I followed. This was when I decided to read further and better understand why terms such as Wuhan, bats, epidemic and quarantine were becoming so commonly used. China was registering numerous COVID-19 casualties, but I still couldn’t figure why it needed so much attention.
And I’ll tell you why I was unable to grasp the gravity of the situation. I did a quick Google search and I found India recorded at least 500 deaths per day in just road accidents alone. COVID-19, meanwhile, was not even remotely as serious as this seemingly regular occurrence on Indian roads. I even thought out loud on Whatsapp group chats with my peers. One close friend remarked that while my concerns were valid, road fatalities were not contagious; an accident cannot ‘spread’ from one victim to another upon contact. His viewpoint seemed justified but I still wasn’t fully convinced. So the ever optimistic me still did not see reason to defer travel plans; rather, I was on one of those last flights that flew before stringent travel bans were announced worldwide.
It needed a ‘wife intervention’
It was only when my wife refused to let me enter her parents’ home that I realised the gravity of the situation. Beas, my better half, owns a residential school. She lives on campus which is also home to over 200 boarders, besides numerous estate and teaching staff who also reside within the school premises. As captain of the ship, her key priority is to ensure their safety and well-being. If that meant barring a wayward husband from jeopardising their safety, she was more than willing to do so.
Therefore, when I arrived at the airport after what was to be my final flight for a long time to come, I received a brief message informing me that I should take a taxi to my own home. The message also added I must self-quarantine for the next two weeks. I will admit I initially felt a sense of rage come over me but fortunately, it did not take long for good sense to prevail. In fact, in only a short while, I was actually a tinge delighted and I’m sure you will have figured out why.
Staying alone has never been a concern for me and I am quite at ease talking to the walls and ceiling, although I have not tested the thresholds of this claim. I decided to dutifully self-quarantine and keep busy with what earns me a fair share of my bread and butter – writing and editing. There was a fair bit of work at hand and I got busy in fulfilling assignment deadlines.
Come 24th March 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that a strict lockdown would take effect from the following day. By this time, I had completed just over a week in self quarantine. I had watched closely for symptoms but thankfully, none appeared. There was no dry cough, no fever and my breathing was just fine. I must have sounded convincing enough over the phone because the wife then took pity on me and waved the green flag to join her at her home within the beautiful school campus. More than anything, I was happy to be in the company of our four-year old daughter Zarah who, by the way, has a flair for languages. She already speaks three. On my part, it took me no time to find a comfortable spot to begin reading and I was once again busy with my word weaving.
What’s a story without a flashback?
But I must first take you back a decade and more ago. My first love is automobiles; so much so that I pursued my undergrads learning about them in Canada, which I then followed up with work stints at an automotive group. I worked in various roles at a dealership and it was lovely driving to work even on chilly winter mornings with the snow coming down heavily. The winter months were especially busy at the body shop because so many people were slipping and skidding and damaging their vehicles. The only role I did not enjoy as much was sales, largely because I had to use a very extroverted approach and try as I would, I couldn’t get myself to put enough force into a ‘hey, how are ya?’ But that was another time and today, I’d probably do it in five languages and be able to comfortably sell a car in four.
Upon relocating to India, the automobile bug was still strongly ingrained and I set out to establish an independent auto repair shop. Although we offered both mechanical and collision repairs, I liked the latter best. There is nary a feeling more satisfying than seeing a freshly restored car that probably came to the workshop in a state of coma.
This was what kept me busy for the most part until a dear friend offered me an opportunity to work with him on research writing projects. I took it up without a thought and over the last few years, I have tried to hone my skill, one little bit every day. I do so often while looking at elaborate research papers which offer the perfect antidote to a bout of insomnia. Therefore, between running the workshop and moonlighting as a writer, I had lots on my plate- or so it seemed.
It was time to reflect – thanks to the lockdown
With the lockdown announced, the workshop was obviously closed and I now had a great deal of spare time. Sure I was devoting more time to reading and writing but my mind was on overdrive. I was able to think for as long as I pleased and the peace and quiet that our abode offered was a further catalyst. I took stock of all areas of my life and I weighed the benefits received for every unit of effort put in.
Now Beas is a hard task master. The school demands that she maintain a strict daily routine and being ever the flexible person, I did not mind fitting in to this martial law. I could do with a sense of discipline I reckoned. Since all her students had left for their homes ahead of the lockdown, she was now frantically trying to make sure that classes resumed online from the exact day the new academic session was supposed to have begun under normal circumstances. Even though she had over 200 students to take care of, she still decided to make time for two more whom she would teach at home. Their mothers worked as housekeeping staff in the school.
To ease some pressure off of Beas, I offered to teach these two little boys every alternate day of the week. Giving them company was our four year old Zarah, who has only attended formal school for maybe four months until now. We’d been meaning to get her used to the idea of studying and especially learning the English alphabet. She speaks the language alright, she can recite the letters with ease and she can even identify them. But give her a pencil to practice the moves and she begins to suffer from myriad aches and even dizziness sometimes.
The realisation begins to dawn
As I sat down to teach this assorted bunch of three–comprising Anush, Ayush and Zarah–I began to make some interesting observations. Anush and Ayush were in grade 3 apparently and they were both eight years of age. They were attending rural schools and although the medium of instruction was English, the latter term seemed to only be in namesake. Yes, they were able to write in English and their spellings too weren’t poor and give them a passage to read, they were able to do so with ease. But ask them to explain what it meant, and it almost always drew a blank because conversant as they were with English letters and words, they had likely just learned them by rote, without really understanding what it all meant. This was easy for me to relate to since I can read French but ask me what it means, and I will likely just stare at you.
English medium schools are where every parent, regardless of income, desires to send their children to. There are, of course, many outliers who place more importance on learning their mother tongue only but even elementary research suggests that proficiency in the English language is directly correlated to a higher chance at professional success – both in India and abroad. The bulk of content and text books also are available in English. If one is to perform a quick voice search on Google on any particular subject, there are always better and richer results in English than in regional Indian languages.
With Anush and Ayush, I realised they were both smart children and their ability to retain was commendable but by virtue of poor English proficiency, they understood little of what was written in their social sciences or general knowledge books. In comparison, Zarah, who was only four, was able to keep pace with them, simply because she spoke English with relative ease. She can even use Google Lens now and does so actively to identify insects and leaves – leaving us parents quite enlightened in the process because well, we have to still explain the text to her.
What was becoming increasingly clear to me, with each passing class, was the fact that these children needed to really brush up on their English speaking and understanding skills, failing which, they were not being set up on a path to success. Sure they were attending school and becoming educated in the literal sense but school really wasn’t serving too much of a purpose other than keeping them busy while their guardians went to work. An even more startling discovery was the English textbook they used; it was riddled with spelling and grammatical errors and how it ever became the prescribed text leaves me wondering how deplorable its contenders might have been.
Space exploration or basics first
The pandemic has already exposed India’s many glaring weaknesses. While we have an ambitious space exploration programme on one end of the spectrum, the heart wrenching stories of migrant laborers who walked and cycled home have left an indelible mark on my mind. They are the most vulnerable section of the Indian demographic and they account for a significant part of our population. In making only low value jobs available to them, they are at the mercy of wealthy barons who will not hesitate to desert them at the slightest hint of trouble in their organisations. Many have no specific skill and will perhaps be hard pressed to find meaningful employment in their places of origin.
And the question that hovers on my mind is if India cannot provide higher value jobs, surely it can at least train its youth in skills that can perhaps enable them to seek employment overseas. India is on track to becoming the most populous nation by 2025 and when we are already stretched in terms of job creation, there must be greater focus on the basics first. We must ensure English is taught well in elementary school itself because it really is the enabler to pursue any form of higher education. We can learn our mother tongues too, for like I said, four year old Zarah already speaks three languages – English, Bengali and Hindi.
To drive home my point, let me ask of you a little favour. If you are reading this on a smartphone, simply go over to the Google search bar on your home screen and tap the microphone icon. Ask which year the French Revolution began in English and make a mental note of the search results, especially the data sources. Now repeat the same exercise in Hindi or Punjabi and compare the data sources in both cases.
I am sure you understand what I mean now.
Can technology offer solutions?
On the face of it, India’s demographic seems to present a rosy picture. We have the world’s youngest population that can supposedly spark a manufacturing revolution, paving the path to self reliance as many have been led to believe. But the stark reality we are faced with is the bulk of our youth are far from employable. They may even hold multiple degrees but ask them to so much as even express themselves, they will be hard pressed to construct one cohesive sentence.
While I continue to research on what means can be best employed to ensure a brighter future for the rural youth of today, I am convinced on one aspect — that technology alone can offer a solution to this predicament. Students in rural areas have a bigger handicap to overcome given the poor quality of faculty available in far flung areas. However, with the advent of better network connectivity, there is potential to turn the tide on substandard elementary education.
If I could sum up my pandemic musings in one crisp sentence, it would be this – e-learning can empower India’s youth by extending them affordable yet quality education. With even Nobel Laureate Abhijit Banerjee echoing a similar sentiment, there is perhaps much substance in the belief that technology can be the great leveler.