Thursday, 20 November 2014

Changing Classroom Climate at the Under-Graduate Level

Changing Classroom Climate at the Under-Graduate Level: Techniques and Innovations
                                                             Dr. Brian Mendonca
                                                             ELT Professional


Teaching English to undergraduate students today has become extremely challenging. Across the 3 years of their ‘internship’ of the B.A. degree course (6 semesters) they are exposed to a variety of English skills from ‘Spoken English’ in the first year to Indian Literature in English in the final year. Whereas students who opt for literature and subjects allied to literature in English, viz. American studies, the rest in the large, unwieldy compulsory English classes get by with a smattering of English. Overshadowed by their more adroit Allied students in the same class with superior English skills --and often the teachers’ favourites -- these students usually from the mother tongue medium fare pathetically.

Many resort to cut and paste for their intra-semester exams (ISA), or force sentences with no clue of idiomatic meanings. Students prefer to stay in cliques reinforcing the same abysmal performance levels. They rarely stay back for remedial teaching. An open book exam produces better results. can be leveraged by asking students to sign up for courses with content allied to syllabus. Role plays; group discussion and one-on-one interviews break the ennui of classroom teaching. With students in classrooms on mobile phones with internet, generation Z would like to excel in English but are not motivated enough. This paper will address these issues by offering techniques which have worked at the 3 levels of under-graduate teaching.

Keywords: Under-Graduate Teaching, ELT, SL, ISA, SEE, Language Learning, Techniques, Innovations 
International Conference on Trends and Innovations in Language Teaching (TILT 2014), Department of English, Sathyabama University, Chennai, India, 14-15 November 2014; Pix above of  Dr. Brian Mendonca delivering his presentation at the conference venue on 15 November 2014. He was invited to chair the session.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Naam Japo, Kirat Karo, Vand Chakko

-Brian Mendonça

Thank you Sanjana, for sending me a mail greeting me on the occasion of Guru Nanak Jayanti on 6 November. The last year, on Guru Nanak Jayanti – the birth of Nanak, the first guru of the Sikhs – I wanted to relive the experience of partaking of lunch/ langar at the gurudwara close by. I did not make it and the wish remained unfulfilled.

It was almost 2 p.m. when I saw Sanjana’s mail. Could I make it for langar this year? I feverishly selected my glass-brocaded kurti from Kolhapur, jumped on my scooter and was off. As I reached the gates of the gurudwara at Mangor Hill, Vasco, I beheld the Sikhs elegantly dressed and milling around in a festive mood.  But could I venture in alone?

 I became more resolute when I remembered how I had partaken of langar at the gurudwara at Anandpur Sahib, Punjab on my way back from seeing the awesome Bhakra-Nangal dam in 2008. Those were the years I was the traveller-poet discovering the soul of India.

Furtively, I entered the premises unsure of what to do. I told myself, this was the faith that kept India together -- a respect for another’s religion and a magnanimity of sharing the best tenets of one’s own.

I spotted two lads, looking regal in their turbans, washing their hands at the sink. I plucked up courage and introduced myself as a poet and asked where the langar could be had. I covered my head with my kerchief, as I was instructed to do, and followed them as they went in to pay their respects to the Guru Granth Sahib– the holy book of the Sikhs. I noticed the harmonium and mikes at the side but no players. I was told the keertan (religious singing) concluded at 2 p.m.

On the way to lunch I noticed a team of women energetically making rotis. This is the spirit which is so inspiring where the entire community works to serve food to whoever wants it. Langar is served here every Sunday as well. I was briskly given a thali, a glass and a spoon. In the packed hall my friends found a place where the 3 of us could sit together. Langar of black dal, steaming rotis, cauliflower vegetable with potatoes, raita and kheer was delicious. 

Guru Nanak was born in Pakistan in 1469 and died in India in 1539. His 3-fold teaching in Gurmukhi  script was simple and socially relevant, viz. Meditate on the name of the Lord (Naam japo); do your work diligently (Kirat karo); and share what you have with others (Vand chakko).

I learnt that the lads had come on the INS Viraat – India’s aircraft carrier which was docked at Mormugao harbour. As we watched the gigantic carrier the next day heading for the high seas, I knew I was a little more enriched – and humbled – by the plenitude of India.
Published in Gomantak Times Weekender, St. Inez, Goa, on Sunday 16 November, 2014; Pix of Nanak with childhood friend Mardana. Mardana was a Muslim. He was also a musician; Source

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Pushing the Envelope

Brian Mendonça

To rev up life I usually ‘push the envelope.’ This expression has nothing to do with stationery, but it could be about pushing -- yourself. For me to push the envelope is to go where I have not gone before, do something I have not done before. In short, challenge myself.

I have learnt that this keeps me on my toes, open to new experiences tasting failure and success, both fictive mendicants of the coin of life. Those who go with me are rare and sometimes none, but I have learnt to follow my own star.

Since the youth are more receptive to new ideas, I often test mine with them. On 4 July we observed America Day with the students of American Studies making short presentations on in-course topics like the poetry of Poe; native Americans; fashion brands; and patriotism in the American novel. When they were doing more in-depth power point presentations in the run-up to the Semester-end exams in October, I thought to myself why not push the envelope and have a meet of all students offering the paper in colleges in Goa. Why should we all be stuck in our own silos when we were learning about the same land, its culture, history and life?

The idea seemed a bit far-fetched at first. My students rose to the occasion gallantly agreeing to host the event after their exams, even though, by then they were over and done with the paper. The Meet was planned the day after they finished their exams. They were exhausted but they were going to be there. We really didn’t have a clue how it would all turn out because the participating colleges were sketchy about what they intended to perform. I suppose that was to be expected, considering most of our communication across the faculty was by SMS.

As the first college trooped in, I was informed by the accompanying faculty member that the students had not finished their exams and had one the next day! Still they took time off to set to music and perform Maya Angelou’s poem ‘Phenomenal Woman.’ Another college painstakingly put together a mime of William Faulkner’s novel Sound and the Fury performed by no less than 11 students. Music ruled the day with students making presentations on jazz, rhythm and blues to heavy metal. There was even a paper on the Caribbean poet Edward Brathwaite who lives in New York City.

The no-competition format made collaborative learning possible. I was amazed at the fertility of forms the students reveled in. Our Principal generously made available a juice and a vada each as a free snack mid-morning for the participants. The break, when it was served, got the students and faculty to synergize and bask in the awareness that we all were on the same page. We winded up before lunch happy that we had pushed the envelope -- our modest attempt to reach out and widen the scope of our learning was a success.
Published in Gomantak Times Weekender St. Inez, Goa on Sunday, 2 November 2014; Pix of students and faculty at the meet-up on 28 October 2014. 

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer

This Navroze I didn't actually go down to Calangute to sample the famed Parsi fare at Zuperb restaurant at  Gauravaddo run by Zubin, Porus and Bryan -- all lads who came down from Mumbai and set up the restaurant -- but I did nudge a colleague to lend me her copy of Corpse Bearer. The title of the book somewhat repelled me at first but after reading it I realize it is actually a way of life. Sensitively portrayed Cyrus Mistry rises above his station and make Phiroze Elchidana a victim of the human condition -- not just a khandia (corpse bearer) condemned to live beside the Towers of Silence for his love for Sepideh, daughter of a khandia. It shows to what extent a man can go to be able to cherish the company of the woman he loves.

Corpse Bearer (2012) is a reflection on death. The writer has misgivings about the hereafter and whether these elaborate rituals really signify in the afterlife. His scepticism comes through particularly in his dialogues with his father, the high priest and preserver of the faith:
Personally Papa, do you really believe it matters how we go out of this world? I mean, whether one is a Hindu or Muslim or Parsi, after we die in what manner our corpse is disposed of? I mean does it make a difference to the soul that survives the body's destruction? (204)
It is only in the final pages that Phiroze can stand up and question the beliefs of his father. Soon after, his father dies and it is his son himself who is his corpse bearer.
Father was eighty-six when he died, still in good health, and able to manage his personal needs and chores without assistance. . . As a child, I had been very close to Father. Later the rift between us widened, and for a while I felt we had become adversaries. (234)
It is curious that after this deferential allusion to his Father in the quote above, in the next paragraph Phiroze refers to his father by his impersonal first name: 'Vispy [his brother] had been speaking to Rutnagar notifying him about Framroze's death.' (234)

The book is a chronicle which condones the leeway the writer enjoys in not keeping to a taut narrative. This would be historical fiction in a sense --a window to a very private community yet not without pathos. It is loosely an autobiography and has the quality of a personal memoir.

Like Anita Desai's Clear Light of Day, Corpse Bearer is also set at a time in Mumbai when India is wresting Independence for herself from the British. Section One is titled 'Present Tense, Bombay,1942.' Gandhiji's Salt March of 1930 is referred to (122). The line 'Appeasement of legitimate national aspirations was flatly denied to us Indians,'(123) seems to be almost the words of the nationalist Tobias in Lambert Mascarenhas' Sorrowing Lies My Land set in Goa chaffing under the yoke of the Portuguese. The machinations of the colonial powers and their deployment of Indian forces willy nilly also rumbles through the pages of Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh in the South East Asian theatre at the time of India's freedom struggle.

Sepideh's death through snake-bite seems contrived. When the mourners gather and simply stare helplessly, it reminds one of Nissim Ezekiel's 'Night of the Scorpion.' The frantic 'faqueer' fails to invite the cobra again to suck the poison out of Sepideh and the writer simply adds as a coda 'So much for the miracles of faith.' (153)

The hilarious romp in the Sewree cemetery presided over by the dubious yet avaricious Gomes questions our beliefs of internment. In a gnawing way it recalls the scene in the movie Simone where the fake Simone is sought to be buried -- for appearances sake -- as people will not believe this digitized creation does not exist!
All references from Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer by Cyrus Mistry, Aleph Publishing, New Delhi, 2012.

Monday, 27 October 2014


Brian Mendonca

Thunder Down Under --
India -Australia match

Modi wins by slender margin--
Gujarat polls.

Taming the Dragon --
Indo-Chinese forces
Embrace at Tawang.

Super Sunday --
Arsenal beat Chelsea 1-0

Bomb blast at Imphal--
7 dead in bus proceeding to Imphal.

(Dimapur 2005)

At yet another reading of poetry organized by Vasco Watch and the mercurial Commander Narayanan and Janani, poetry lovers read their lines at the Narayanan residence last Sunday. The exquisite, intimate space at Ranghavi estate,  Bogmallo road, Goa seemed perfect to wax eloquent as the rain outside provided the score. Janani served up hot pakoras and steaming cups of coffee -- this could only be 'Coffee with Kavita'! -- an event organized by VW to promote poetry and the writing of verse. The exuberance was infectious as after I read my poems I couldn't help picking up the forlon guitar in the corner and strum the good old Konkani dulpods opening with  Undra Mhojea Mama. At which point all who could shake a leg, did!

On request from the audience I read my poem 'An Evening in Paris' (on this blog) written for Queenie as we romanced by Worli sea face, Mumbai. The title is taken from the name of a perfume she was wearing at the time which provided an example of what could be the sources of inspiration of a poet. A poem was requested on Orissa. I acknowledged that though I had visited the place I had not written a poem yet and was not going to force it. For:

To force the pace, and never to be still
Is not the way one studies birds --
                              or women
The best poets wait for words.

                           -Nissim Ezekiel

I dwelt on irony in 'CNN IBN' where a foreign news channel pays scant regard to a bomb blast in the North East in its reportage in Dimapur. I ended with 'Deep South' -- my poem rooted in Mahabalipuram, Coimbatore and Bangalore which had Janani promising to serve me 'rice on a banana leaf' -- one of the lines in the poem. What else does a poet need?!
All poems from A Peace of India: Poems in Tansit (New Delhi: Self-published, 2011); Pix taken at 'Coffee with Kavita' at the Narayanan residence, Ranghavi Estate, Bogmallo Road, Goa on Sunday 26 October 2014.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Face of Kachchh

-Brian Mendonca

On the Anjar road
the ceiling hangs like a curtain.
Kamal ke phool
Raste ke us paar.
The pir of the wayside
Overlooks the Rann.
In the tremor of tomorrow
A hand reaches through the dust
Allah ko pyare.
Kukma's biscuits
Wean smiles at Bujori
On the Surajbari bridge
The blue ribbon of Sayaji
Lignite from Panandro
On the Sarkhej road
A caravan of camels
stitches in kantha
Mandvi or Bhuj
'Koteshwar is not going anywhere.'

(Kachchh, 2006)
Published in A Peace of India: Poems in Transit (New Delhi:Self-published, 2011); Pix of Jesal-Toral samadhi, Anjar from hoparoundindia(dot)com; 9115 Bandra-Bhuj Sayaji Express

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Clear Light of Day

Clear Light of Day (1980) has an old world feel about it. You almost don't expect the redemption it affords -- somewhat tacky, I felt -- at the end of the novel to rescue it from its morass of misgiving. While I was thrilled it was an alaap by Mulk the failed musician who offers the insight into Bim's life, I was wondering why he was waiting in the wings for so long. His master who musters up a rendition which fails to ennoble seems to afford the obvious realization that youth and old age are two sides of the same coin.

The novel has the girth to push it to another 200 pages -- what with just finishing the gargantuan Glass Palace (2000) by Amitav Ghosh. Still, Anita Desai's cameos of her characters are compelling. But the novel is clearly written for Bim. Her self-knowledge and her openness to meet Raja shows her rising to maturity. But does the novel only hinge on reconciliation?

This is a kunstellroman is it not? Which is a tale of a girl's growing up to be a woman. In the novel there are 4 or if you like 6. The Das's daughters, the Misra's daughters and Tara's daughters. Raja's daughter Shabana in Hyderabad does not really qualify as she is hardly seen. The love-hate relationship between Tara and Bim is fraught with guilt, anger and painful reminisces of childhood memories. The absence of their parents who go to play cards in the club make the sisters lean on each other not always successfully. But the psychological complexity could be plumbed more, something that her daughter Kiran Desai seems to do with more vigour in The Inheritance of Loss (2006) (see this blog for a review). In a sense the two novels belong to two different moments in India's history. Clear Light of Day  is set at the time of the partition; Inheritance is about independence in the fractious frontier of Darjeeling. The latter is understandably more modernist.

It is sad to see how the close bond Raja and the sisters shared in childhood is riven in adulthood, by what one suspects is Raja's marriage to Hyder Ali's daughter.  Ultimately it is Iqbal and Eliot who provide the coda to life -- if we don't count Aurangzeb. The light offers its commentary on the blindness of obstinacy in the characters in the novel: 'The light of the full moon was so clear, surely it could illuminate everything tonight (247). It is the soft light of the night, not the clear light of day to which Tara implores to for healing.

Old Delhi is certainly a character in the novel. How time hangs heavy on an afternoon with the turntable rasping Baba's songs is lyrically portrayed. The soirees at Roshanara bagh invoke an old world charm safely tucked away from the horrors of Tamas or Train to Pakistan. Gandhiji's murder in 1948 raises the tempo of the novel in the middle (148) and is what causes Hyder Ali to go underground. In the end sanity prevails and Raja marries his daughter affirming Hindu-Muslim amity.

Some of the long sentences are tiresome. Mira Masi tethers on being a caricature inextricably linked to the dead white, 'bride-like' (156) cow whose cause she championed. Her pathetic end is a resounding indictment about the state of Indian women who are at the receiving end of their in-laws. The Misra daughters also have absent husbands to leave their wives to forget their wedded status in their frantic ministrations. Tara is the only one who seems to find fulfillment -- if only by leaving India with Bakul.

It is difficult to escape the pessimism of the novel. Lawrence's Ship of Death is quoted at length (155) where we are advised to prepare for the final voyage. Birth, childhood, adulthood, death are all contained in Clear Light of Day. Through a process of self-effacement we realize our meaning in this life. Time the destroyer, is time the preserver. (283)
Citations from Random House edition with an introduction by Kamila Shamsie. Pix courtesy flipkart.