Free From School
By Rahul Alvares
Public Domain Books
Chapter 11: Learning to Teach
January brought fresh experience for me and it happened entirely because of Hartman de Souza. I was to return to Goa via Bangalore and since our good friends, Hartman and Ujwala, live in Bangalore and had expressed willingness to accommodate me, should I need a place to stay for a while during my sabbatical, my parents suggested that I spend a few days there before returning home. I was to stay at their place, sight-see Bangalore if I liked and inform my parents as soon as I was ready to return. This then was the general plan.
I reached Bangalore at 1.40 p.m. on the 7th of January. Bing (that’s how we all call Hartman) was at the bus-stand to pick me up, with his car. We drove to his house, me chatting away in reply to all his questions. At home there was Ujwala and their kids, Zuri and her younger brother, Zaeer. Also living with them at the time was Mrs Kalai who was Bing’s colleague at the India Foundation for the Arts.
After settling down to a good meal and generally relaxing, Bing told me that he had in mind a few people and institutions connected with my interest i.e., wildlife and that I should use my time in Bangalore to meet them. I agreed to his suggestion, little realizing that the people he suggested I meet would make their own suggestions about other people I should meet and when I would report this information to Bing, he would insist that I go and meet them as well. So I spent quite a few days meeting, or writing to, various persons connected with wildlife in Bangalore.
Bing is quite a hard taskmaster and he would not let me off easily; if the people were not in station at that time or, if the names suggested were not from Bangalore, I had to write to them instead. I wrote numerous letters as a result. The general purpose of this activity was that I should get an idea of what options were there for me if I decided to pursue a career in wildlife eventually. Bing also suggested that I should try to find out how and why these people decided to take to environment and wildlife studies, whether they were happy in their choices and so on.
Bing made several copies of an introductory cum reference letter for me which I was to give to the people I was to meet. The letter, which was signed by him, stated that I had taken a one year sabbatical to explore wildlife which I had done for the past eight months and that I would like to have a small interview with the person concerned. I also prepared small questionnaires to help me in the interviews. Bing would most often phone the person in advance and make the appointment for me. Sometimes he even reached me to the place; at other times I went in a rickshaw.
The first person I met was Mr T. Parameswarappa, Retd. Principal Chief Conservator of Forests. I reached Mr Parameswarappa’s house at 11.45 a.m. I had an appointment with him at 12.30 p.m. However Mr Parameswarappa was out and did not arrive home until 1.30 p.m. So I sat and looked at a couple of books in his office. Soon after he returned we began to talk, first about my sabbatical and then about what I wanted to do in the future.
He told me that after graduation, one must answer a competitive examination held by the Union Public Service Commission. The students who are selected are trained and then posted to a forest. At the University of Agricultural Sciences at Dharwad or Hebbal, a four year course on forestry can be done after completing pre-university. At the Wildlife Research Institute short courses may be available, he said, but after graduation long courses are definitely available.
I asked him some questions and I relate briefly the interview I had with him:
Rahul: Is it possible to have a ranger give you a private guided tour within the Banargatta Wildlife Sanctuary?
Parmeswarappa: I’m afraid not. There are only routine safaris for visitors. But if you like you can meet Mr Venkatesh, Deputy Conservator of Forests and give him my reference.
R: What is the condition of the sanctuary?
P: It is a government initiative and as you can expect, there are good and bad points to all such activities.
R: Are there any unusual career courses offered in Wildlife?
P: In India there are no privately run sanctuaries or zoos. Therefore any career in wildlife or forestry must be through the government. This makes it almost impossible to have any rare or unusual career courses.
R: What are the duties of the staff at the Banargatta Park?
P: Their only duty is to see to the well-being of the animals i.e. feed them and keep their surroundings clean. They do not study or do research on the animals.
R: How did you acquire this post of Principal Chief Conservator of Forests? What was your background?
P: Like you, I had to study. I answered an examination and got a job as a forest officer. Later I went to the US for two years and on my return I was appointed as Chief Conservator of Forests.
R: Is it possible to set up a Snake Park for doing snake venom extraction?
P: Of course it is possible. But one must apply for a licence/permission for keeping wild snakes in captivity. Pune Snake Park will know the procedure and if you write to them they will give you all the details.
Mr Parameswarappa proved to be a very friendly and helpful person. Before I left I showed him copies of the letters which I had already sent to the Indira Gandhi Research Institute and to the Indian Wildlife Research Institute at Dehradun.
My second appointment was with Mr Arun Kotankar, one of the main persons running an organisation called Samvad which has a programme called SMILE (Student Mobilisation Initiative for Learning) in Bangalore. I reached the office at 10.30 a.m. although my appointment was at 12 o’clock. I showed him my reference letter and in a little while he sat to talk with me.
Mr Kotankar told me about the SMILE programmes in Bangalore. On Saturday afternoons they have an informal open house at Samvad. They watch a film, have a debate or just talk on a specific topic of interest to students, like tourism, dowry, child abuse, fisherfolk’s struggles or topics like marriage, love, education or parents.
Students also visit organisations working with dalits, tribals, women, street children, fisherpeople, etc. One can also learn environmental conservation. If the students cannot go to far off places and have to stay back during vacations, they are advised to take up campaigns or undertake studies on local problems like child labour, environmental degradation, construction workers’ rights, etc.
Shodhane which means `search’ is a newsletter brought out by students who have been to these exposure camps and they write about their experiences during the exposure or generally about other social concerns. One can contribute articles, poems, cartoons or stories in Kannada and English. I was quite interested to hear all that Mr Kotankar had to say about this organisation.
Later, I went straight to St. Joseph’s College where according to the information Bing had, there were various environmental courses being conducted for college students. I met one of the clerks in the college office who gave me the information I requested and also a pamphlet listing the different courses one could take after graduation.
Two days later I went to meet Dr Harish Gaonkar at his house, at 11 a.m. Both he and his wife (who is German) were very friendly and I spent a lot of time talking with Mr Gaonkar who is a specialist on butterflies.
I learnt from him that butterflies are insects that are more closely related to plants than to insects. From the number of species of butterflies in an area, a butterfly collector can also find out the number of species of plants in that area. This is because each species of butterfly will use only a certain plant/plants species. For example, in Goa, there are about 250 species of butterflies, that means that there are about 900 to 1,000 plant species in Goa. This information would be much more difficult for a pure botanist to give. Thus butterflies are an ideal medium for a botanist who wishes to have an idea of the plant species in the locality.
Eggs are laid by the mother butterflies in distinct places on leaves to avoid predators from feeding upon them. They hatch within two to three days. The larvae will moult many times (on an average five) to become a pupa. During the pupa stage, it does not feed and after a few days it emerges as a butterfly. It waits for about 10 minutes to dry its wings in the sun and then flutters away. The whole process to become an adult may take a period of five weeks to two months. Then the butterfly will live for about 2 weeks, and within the first few days, will lay only one batch of eggs.
Moths are the ones that spin silk. No butterfly spins silk. There are about 10,000 species of moths in the world-much more than butterflies. Some butterflies and moths are poisonous e.g. the Crimson Rose, even found in Goa. It is a butterfly with wings and a red body. It also has red dots on its wings and black dots on its body. The smallest butterflies are about a few centimetres in size and one of the biggest butterflies is about the size of two palms put together.
At the end of the meeting Dr Gaonkar showed me some books on butterflies and some papers written by him on the subject. At around 1.30 p.m. I took leave of him and left for MES College where I had an appointment with Dr Leela for the same afternoon. There I saw preserved dolphin tails and specimens of hammer-headed sharks.
My stay in Bangalore also became very special because of the Times of India programme that Bing managed to arrange for me. The Times of India in Bangalore has a special section called “Newspaper in Education”. One of the programmes of NIE is to have workshops in schools on varied topics. On the 20th of January, I went to The Times office on M.G. Road and after talking with the person in charge for sometime about what I had been doing during the past year I was asked whether I would take a few workshops in some schools over the next couple of days. Although I was not too certain how well I would do this job I agreed because if there is one thing I learnt during my sabbatical it is that one should always give a try to anything new because things are not always as hard as they might appear to be. So I said yes.
My first workshop was on the 22nd of January. I was picked up by one of the organisers from NIE and taken to the Srivani Education Centre where I was to speak to the students of Standard VIII. I was expected to speak for about 35 minutes and keep around 10 minutes for questions or discussion.
I was a bit nervous at first but as the talk progressed and I found the students listening attentively I talked more freely. After these sessions were over I would be dropped back home or to Hartman’s office whichever was nearer. After the first few schools went off well and I became accustomed to the routine I found myself enjoying these classes. I was even more pleased to learn that I would be paid Rs.100 per workshop plus my travel costs.
For the talk I would start by telling the students about my sabbatical, how the idea came up, the various places I had visited and the various things I had done so far. After that I would speak about two topics-vermiculture and snakes-because I thought that these would be of most use to the students. Vermiculture because they could practise this at home to process the garbage into compost and snakes because people have so many fears about them.
When I talked about vermiculture, particularly about mixing cowdung with soil, sometimes the girls and boys would find it distasteful and would make jokes about it or laugh at the idea and I would think that these are city kids and they don’t know anything about cowdung. But still I would continue to explain how a vermipit can be set up in their homes.
On snakes, I would first give general information about poisonous and non-poisonous snakes, and how to identify the poisonous ones. Then I would tell them what should be done if someone got a snake bite. I would also discuss the various beliefs that people have about snakes and which of them are myths. Depending on the time left, I would speak about other things too, like crocodiles, turtles or spiders.
At the end of the class, I would show them croc teeth, photos of myself with snakes, crocs, monitors, etc., and then my red-eared turtle that I always carried around with me in my bag. At this point there would be maximum excitement. Everyone would crowd around, some would ask to hold the turtle and they would ask questions about its eating habits etc. I would allow them to touch the shell and nothing more because the turtle is very nasty and bites. In this fashion I took workshops at several other schools including National English School, Sindhi School, St. Mary’s School, Bolivian Girls School and Bangalore International School. I usually spoke to the students of Class VII to X. At Bangalore International School however the workshop was for the students of Class III and IV.
A few months later back in Goa I was pleased when the postman handed me a registered letter from NIE, Bangalore which contained a cheque for Rs.1075, my full earnings for giving the lectures. Later when I wrote an article on my one year sabbatical for the Hindustan Times I sent a copy to NIE and they too published it in their newsletter. Newspaper in Education has also invited me to take more workshops whenever I am in Bangalore.
Bangalore was very enjoyable in many other ways as well. One morning I went to a swimming pool with Kalia and got the shock of my life on jumping into the water; it was freezing cold! I resolved never to try swimming in Bangalore in the winter again.
I ate out often especially during the day and tried out various small eating joints (Bangalore has plenty of them), sampling South Indian food, vegetable cutlets, milk shakes and so on. Of course, I constantly had to watch my purse, for my budget did not allow lavish eating. Sometimes I went to a book shop, sometimes I did small errands for Bing and Ujwala, and I recall helping Bing with the cooking on at least two occasions and occasionally helping Ujwala with her garden.
I also used to accompany Bing and Ujwala and their two kids on family outings. Once we went to a lake called Sanki Tank where I enjoyed motorboat rides and then played with Zuri and Zaeer in a small children’s park. Another time, we all went to see a dance performance that I didn’t understand too much about. Sometimes we all just went out for a drive (I enjoyed these rides best) and then would have ice-cream cones on the way home.
I must tell you how I learnt to eat vegetables. I have generally disliked vegetables as far as I can remember. My mum tells me that she regularly fed me vegetables as a baby and we have always had one or two vegetables on the table at home for any meal. Still I would generally refuse vegetables and preferred to stick to fish curry and rice, our staple food in Goa.
When I was starting on my travels my parents warned me that in several places the food would be only vegetarian, and that did happen to be the case. During the year I learnt how to eat all types of food at different people’s houses. But I stuck to veggies I could tolerate like cabbage and potatoes or I would eat the dhal and rice with pickles. I had still not started eating vegetables like ladyfinger and brinjal. Bing found out about this when chatting with me and said that he hated anybody making a fuss about food. So everyday while eating he would put a huge helping of vegetables on my plate. Especially the ones I didn’t like, like tomatoes, brinjal and ladyfinger.
I would finish the vegetables first so that I could enjoy the better part of the meal i.e. the meat or fish without having to deal with the veggies. But no sooner had I finished the vegetables, he would say: “Oh lovely, you like this vegetable? Have another helping!” and despite my protests I would get another huge helping of vegetable. In this way I would eat about three times the quantity of vegetables as I took the first time before I finally ended my meal.
Eventually, I stayed on in Bangalore for three weeks, returning home only on the 30th of January. I had not met my parents and brothers for nearly 3 months and was eager to share my experiences with them. Unfortunately when I arrived, I got just an hour or so to chat with my parents as they were leaving that very day for a 10-day stay in Delhi to attend the World Book Fair along with some of the staff from Other India Bookstore. So I had to wait till their return to regale them with my tales.
But in the meanwhile there were my two younger brothers eager to know about my travels, my neighbours who hadn’t seen me for five months and of course my old pals like Ashok who were happy to welcome me in their midst again.