Dispatches from Delhi: Report 3

Today, I finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, a book that tries to ascertain the various external factors that help facilitate the possibility of great success. The book as a whole was good, but I found it particularly interesting that in one chapter, the author characterizes American education as a system that places great importance on the separation of work and play, citing the widespread cultural attitude that too much mental stimulation can lead to stagnation and actual digression. Now, on the surface, this seems like a sensible idea to vibe with. You know, the whole “all work and no play” philosophy.

However, what exactly constitutes “play”?

In the U.S., when I think about a playground, several common images immediately come to mind: merry-go-round, swings, jungle gyms, those weird steel bubbles kids used to hang on upside-down and do flips off of. These things come to mind because in America, playgrounds are meant as a welcome reprieve from the intellectual workload of school through exhaustive physical fun in the forms of monkey bars and slides; a place that symbolizes the American separation of learning and recreation with very clear-cut boundaries. Now, I’m definitely a byproduct of the American public education system in that I’ve learned the affiliation of the rooms with the desks and books and lessons as the workplace, which leaves everything outside those walls as a means to escape from that work and do what kids are supposed to do: play. Not to say that I wasn’t intellectually stimulated through class field trips to see things like the science museum or theatrical productions, but even those were far removed from the classroom, solidifying the idea that play is basically anything that’s not school, work or learning. I am not saying this is the only way to look at it, but it is something I happen to find true.

However, does that same definition apply in India?

Today, I visited the school where I am going to start teaching in a week. It was not the first time I went there, but it is definitely the first time I went there thinking about this particular question. Now, kids of all age groups in India grow up playing a lot like kids in America, but they just subtract all the playground equipment and due to monetary constraints, place twice the emphasis on organized sports. Since birth, most children are raised on soccer and cricket, two popular “world” sports, as opposed to Americanized sports like baseball, basketball, and football. However, like their American counterparts, they use the games to alleviate the stress of working in the classroom.

At least that is what I thought until I saw something extraordinary.

Since the two most popular sports played at this K-12 school are mostly aggressive contact sports, the bigger, older kids take up the available space to play them. So where do the younger kids go? What exactly do kids from 5-10 years old do while the bigger kids are all out in the front of the school on the basketball and soccer courts (both concrete, since I don’t think there’s a school in India can afford a grass pitch)? In the very back of the school’s Primary Wing, there is a small elevated area with the surface area of a small apartment. In it, there are no jungle gyms or monkey bars, no slides or bubbles; instead, it has interactive displays like those found in a science museum—each with a sign explaining how to use it and what to learn from it. The displays include:

  • A life-size model of DNA
  • A working model of a lifting screw
  • A pair of parabolic dishes (pictured)
  • A miniature hydroelectric power plant
  • And a 3-part model of inclined planes

Now, this might not be the most aesthetically pleasing recreational area to someone who grew up with the decency of American parks and playgrounds. Nor does it in any way work with the American definition of “play,” which itself says a lot about the Indian connection between work and play. This small pitch of land is a statement that schools can intentionally blur the line between learning and recreation to reduce students’ aversion to critical thinking by integrating learning into their play. I am not saying that playgrounds like this are a widespread phenomenon, and I am certainly not saying that all the children take advantage of this particular area, but the whole idea of this integration definitely suggests a very different paradigm for the Indian connection between school and play, learning and recreation. Specifically, that there is no connection; they are the same thing. To generalize, in the Western world, life exists in a compartmentalized fashion. However, in India and other Eastern cultures, life is promoted as holistically as possible.

I guess it is a lot harder for kids to develop aversions to learning when presented with opportunities like this for recess.

Dispatches from Delhi: Report 2

There’s certainly nothing similar about Delhi and Scottsdale from a purely aesthetic point of view. In Scottsdale, drive for 30 minutes in any direction and you’ll see a new city in relatively decent condition. Relative to what, you ask? In Delhi, you can drive a straight hour in any direction and you would still be in the same city, and regardless of what part you were in, you’d see trash, filth, and poverty.

I’m not talking about the couple of people seen around Scottsdale or Tempe or Phoenix with slightly humorous cardboard signs asking for spare change. It’s easy to spare change when the surface-level only shows a handful of homeless. But what about in-your-face-dozens-of-people-living-on-the-streets poverty, the kind of stuff that makes you look pass the immediate novelty of Slumdog Millionaire and think about how large-scale the word “poor” becomes in just one major city of one subcontinent of one billion people?

When I was younger, around 15-16, I never had much spending money in my pocket, but any time I did, I would give what I could part with (usually most of it) to someone I thought needed it. Considering the landscape in Delhi, anytime I did so made me feel like I was contributing a small amount to the collective human effort for better lives across borders.

Today, I left the house with the US equivalent of about $100 in my pocket. If I gave a dollar to every person I saw on the street who I thought desperately needed it, I would have been flat broke in 10 minutes.

Dispatches from Delhi: Report 1

My first day in Delhi, and it was all I could do to not pass out.

24 hours of sleepless transit left me pretty wasted when I touched down, but I knew that falling asleep at 7 a.m. local time would only create a world of hurt for my biological clock, so I tried my level best to reset my circadian rhythms in a bunch of different ways. First, as soon as I reached my grandmother’s house, I figured I’d work out for about an hour, and that actually got my endorphins flowing, which pretty much got me through most of the day. But that soon wore off, so I decided to spend the greater part of the day with my cousins, one who lives in Rajouri Garden where I’m living right now, and the other who lives in Gurgaon with her husband. I have plenty of time for recreation in the next few days since training doesn’t begin at New Era until the 18th.

Now, getting around by car in India is kind of like trying to navigate choppy waters among a gang of bucking sharks. If you think people in New York or LA drive like crazy people, you have obviously never been near Delhi streets. But it’s not too bad, because this always gives me ample time to listen to music or nap or do any of a handful things in transit while my grandmother’s driver takes the wheel, because it takes anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour to get anywhere important.

It was totally worth it though. Both visits were awesome because each cousin did what all women in my family generally do when they see me: they treated me like an emaciated refugee and kept feeding me delicious food until my stomach almost exploded.

I reiterate, awesome. But I digress.

When it came for me to return home, it was 5 p.m. and I was near delirium due to sleep deprivation. So to avoid surrendering myself to a half-dead stupor for a few hours and spending the whole night awake, I pillaged my grandmother’s library for all the books I hadn’t yet read, grabbing all sorts of great literary gems, counting Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Plato’s Republic, and Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink among the nearly 20 texts I found. So I figured I’d try my best to fight off sleep starting with Plato.

I suppose the craziest thing about being back in India is the fact that nothing about it feels crazy at all. When I walked outside and felt my skin break into a sweat like I was in a kiln, I didn’t flinch. When I came to my grandmother’s house and unpacked and hugged the servants whom I have known since I was a child, I didn’t think of the notion of slavery, just people who had been paid to work for my family for decades, who were practically family themselves. When I looked outside my window and I saw beautiful homes right next to abject poverty, people of all ages living in squalor on the streets, there wasn’t a hint of shock like most Westerners would experience from the same view.

I guess I’m used to it, but my lack of reaction isn’t because I’m heartless. It’s because here, income inequality isn’t as subversive as it is in the States. I have seen it at a tender age. I haven’t examined the significance of this yet in great detail, but I know it’s important. More on that later.

With no disrespect to Plato, reading Greek philosophy is a great way to exhaust the mind. So about 40 pages into it, I passed out for a night of staring at my eyelids.

New Summer Series: Dispatches from Delhi

My name is Arjun Chopra, and this summer I’m moving to India for two months to be a T.A. at New Era Public School, a K-through-12 institution in New Delhi.

Why, you ask? There are so many reasons.

1. It’s going to be an incredible work experience. I’ll be working 8-hour days, 5 days a week, grading papers, assisting teachers in putting together lesson plans, and maybe I’ll even get to teach a class or two myself. For a kid like me who has spent his whole life as a nose-to-the-books student, this kind of rigorous workload will be a stark change and a welcome reprieve.

2. My entire family lives there. And when I say entire, I mean entire. My great-grandparents, my grandparents, their children, their children’s children, my first cousins, my second cousins, my second cousins once removed. It’s an extensive list of people, people I feel privileged to spend quality time with. I will learn how to cook quality Punjabi food at my grandmother’s house. Take a crash course in martial arts at the studio by my cousin’s place. And hopefully take a road trip to somewhere awesome in a different region with the family members who are ready to go.

3. But most importantly, I’m going because as a student and a poet, I know I can’t grow without exposure to new stimuli. If I want to learn different things, I have to be exposed to different things. The same goes for if I want to write something new.

I’m going because I want a change, but not the kind of change where I shrug off who I am and become someone else. I need a change in perspective, a shift in paradigm, a break from what has become my everyday so I can expand as a worker, a writer, and a person.

That’s also why I’ll be chronicling my exploration in this “Dispatches” series for Superstition Review, to document my journey not only for personal fulfillment, but in the hope that maybe others can learn something, even a kernel of something, from the things I write about.

So, cheers. I have a feeling it’s going to be a great summer.