Revisiting Calcutta (now Kolkata) after 65 years

I was born in Calcutta in 1946 and lived there until I was eight years old, when my father decided that we must leave. India was no longer a comfortable place for the British – at least, in hindsight, I think that was what he thought. I was too young at the time to appreciate the problem. Leaving India was no easy decision. My mother cried for months after returning to the UK. My father who had been financial director of a well-known Calcutta firm, Shaw Wallace,  had to start again in the UK as a junior accountant, making tea for his seniors.

I do not remember a lot about my early childhood in India. I put this down to the trauma that the whole family suffered on our return to the UK. We were all grieving for India, and I, at the age of eight, was packed off to boarding school. I don’t think my mother could have coped any other way.

At the beginning of this week, 65 years later, I was in Calcutta again, only this time I was calling it Kolkata. (Many of India’s city names that I grew up with have been changed). I was only there three days, and on this occasion that was just the right amount of time – time enough to see many of the key tourist sites (see my Flickr album),  time enough to get a feel for the city of my birth, and time enough to listen for the ‘voices in the ground’. I learned this wonderful and so apt expression, which describes the sense of ‘deja vu’ experienced, or that history is speaking to you, from a blog post recently written by Lisa Lane.

It would be fair to say that I was fascinated, excited, stunned and appalled by Kolkata all at the same time and in equal measure. The first thing that hit me was the seeming chaos everywhere (although we didn’t visit new Kolkata, which we were told is calmer, cleaner and quite different to the old Kolkata that we were seeing). The difference from the tranquil Kerala backwaters we had just left, could not have been more stark.

When we asked our travel guide how he copes daily with the chaos, his reply was that since he was born and brought up in Kolkata he is ‘habituated’. The noise is incessant, with constant blaring of vehicle horns, despite the sign ‘No horns’ on taxis. The traffic is nose to tail all the time, with apparently no driving rules. It’s every man for himself. You cannot move for people, not only on the streets, but in all public places. I cannot see how Kolkata will ever surmount the problems which are obviously associated with being over-populated. But most troubling was the dirt. A clean place felt like a sanctum. The shame is that in old Kolkata all the original buildings with their wonderful balconies and shutters still exist, and could look amazing if they were cleaned up. We were told by our excellent guide, Manab, that this won’t happen because the owners have to pay higher taxes if the housing they are living in looks ‘smart’. Evidently these homes which look so grimy on the outside, are quite different on the inside, well maintained and cared for.

Manab also told us that the Kolkata we see today is not the same Kolkata that was home to my parents, my brother and myself in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. In those days the population was much smaller and the streets and buildings were cleaner, he said. The problem started with partition and a massive increase in population for which Kolkata was not prepared and is still not prepared; immigrants are still arriving from Bangladesh, to sleep under tarpaulins and use standpipes for washing, along all the streets of old Kolkata. For me, this was a sight that could not be ignored. I wondered if I would become ‘habituated’ to this if I lived in Kolkata.

Despite all this, Kolkata is not a miserable place. Incredibly it seems to work, with people going about their daily business seemingly impervious to the chaotic hurly-burly around them. For Manab, an educated, well-read, knowledgeable and travelled man (a retired electrical engineer), Kolkata is truly a ‘City of Joy’. He had read Dominique Lapierre’s book of the same name, which he said he enjoyed, but thought it over-emphasised the problem of poverty in Kolkata. I found it hard to understand this perspective. Poverty on the streets of Kolkata seemed to me to be overwhelmingly in your face everywhere. But Manab also said, when we visited the Kalighat Temple to the goddess Kali, ‘All life is here’. With this I could and did agree, and it was this that made Kolkata such a rich and colourful experience. It was so alive – teeming with life.

My parents are no longer alive. I wish I had talked to them more about their 15 years in Kolkata. I wonder if they ever visited the Kalighat Temple. I somehow doubt it. I once asked my mother why she didn’t know more about Indian cookery. The answer of course was that she didn’t have to cook. I suspect that my parents, for the most part, lived in a British community bubble. I got an inkling of what that must have been like when we visited the Tollygunge Club, where my parents were members – an oasis of calm compared to the streets we had driven through to reach it. I can remember having weekly riding lessons there at 6.00 am before school, and also spending Christmas Days there.

In those days the Club was exclusively British, but Anil Mukerji, the current President of the Club, who kindly gave up an hour of his time to show us round, made it plain that there is no longer a place for anything exclusively British in India.

For the most part the impression I got is that the people of Kolkata are immensely proud of their city with its incredible buildings such as the Cathedral and Victoria Memorial, which they fully acknowledge are their inheritance from the time of British rule. As Anil Mukerji said, good and bad has been done on both sides and now the UK and India are friends. Whether or not this is true, it is the people of India that stand out for me. They are so wonderfully generous of spirit, so wonderfully tolerant, patient and kind.

So did I hear ‘the voices in the ground’ in Kolkata? I certainly walked a small way in the footsteps of my parents, even finding the address on my birth certificate, 10 Palace Court, Kyd Street, where I must have lived on first entering this world. I felt excited and happy to be in Kolkata again after so many years. Despite not recognising a single thing, it felt familiar.

How to avoid getting sick in India

In today’s live ChangeMooc session with Antonio Vantaggiato  (which I will come to  again in another post), I was sorry to hear that Stephen Downes, George Siemens and Dave Cormier all suffered from ‘Delhi Belly’ as a result of their trip to India. I wish I had shared my strategies for avoiding this earlier.

Here is what an Indian friend advised me to do when visiting India – which I have done ever since and have, as a result, avoided the dreaded ‘Delhi Belly’ on all occasions bar one, when I let my guard down after coming down to Srinagar from the Himalayas. It was ironic that I managed to not be sick in Nepal, despite camping and having no proper sanitation, but then getting sick (one day only) when arriving in Srinagar.

Anyhow – here are my strategies for both avoiding getting sick and for getting well quickly after getting sick.

Avoiding getting sick in India

  • Go vegetarian during your stay, i.e. don’t eat meat or fish
  • Don’t eat salad
  • Don’t have ice in your drinks
  • Only drink water from a bottle with a sealed cap. If you buy one, check that the cap is sealed (i.e. the bottle has not been refilled)
  • Only eat fruit which has been peeled
  • Use disinfectant hand wipes before putting anything near your mouth. Avoid putting your hands to your mouth
  • Only eat in reputable restaurants. Give them a good look over first (even hotel restaurants) and walk out if in doubt. More expensive – but worth it.
  • Never eat street vendors food. Could be fine – but is it worth the risk?

If you get sick

This is what I learned when living in Brazil, which I did for 7 years.

  • Don’t eat anything. People will say, have a bit of soup, a cracker, etc. but don’t. The idea is to starve the ‘bug’. You will feel weak, but do not start eating again until you are absolutely sure that you have got rid of the bug.
  • Drink water, water, water (safe water as above!). The idea is to flush out the bug.
  • Do not take ‘Imodium’ or any other such remedies, as they only trap the ‘bug’ inside and it takes much longer to recover. Of course, sometimes this is impossible, e.g. if you have a plane to catch!

These strategies have worked for me over many visits to India. But I do have to be disciplined and strict with myself and follow my code to the letter, even when someone is trying to persuade me otherwise.

And I should end by saying that I absolutely love India. It is a stunning place to visit, culturally, historically and visually so rich, with wonderfully friendly and helpful people. I can really recommend it.

Dangerous ideas for the future of teaching and learning

A teacher can never truly teach unless he is still learning himself. A lamp can never light another lamp unless it continues to burn its own flame.  The teacher who has come to the end of his subject, who has no living traffic with his knowledge, but merely repeats his lesson to his students can only load to their minds.  He cannot quicken them. Truth not only must inform, but also must inspire.  If the inspiration dies out and the information only accumulates then truth loses its infinity.  The greater part of our learning in the school has been a waste because for most of our teachers, their subjects are like dead specimens of once living things, with which they have a learned acquaintance, but no communication of life and love.

Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore


I took this photo of a sculpture of Rabindranath Tagore in the grounds of  Kalakshetra,  a cultural academy dedicated to the preservation of traditional values in Indian art, when I was in Chennai, South India in January.

He was quoted in today’s ChangeMooc presentation by Geetha Narayanan  –  who gave an inspirational talk about the dangerous ideas (or inconvenient truths) that she thinks we need to embrace as educators. She talked of the need for smallness and keeping education local (which is contrary to current moves to scale education through ventures such as the Khan Academy and indeed MOOCs). She suggested a need for slowness, meditation and stillness – an integration of mind and body. Her view is that we also need a disruptive and innovative curriculum. Embracing these ‘dangerous’ ideas will enable our children to cope with an unpredictable future.  It is all about wellness, survival and expanding the inner self.

Geetha talked with such passion and sincerity that everyone was ‘stirred’.  She was not emotional, but through her sincerity managed to model the humanness, consciousness and alive and energetic learning spaces she aspires to.

The recording of her presentation has now been posted. Well worth listening to. Here are the links




Educating the under-privileged

Last week, I was privileged to visit the Kuttu Kalai Kudam or Centre of Performing Arts in Punjarasantankal Village, eight kilometers from Kanchipurum town in the southernmost Indian State of Tamil Nadu.

This small school was founded in 1990 by P. Rajagopal and his Dutch wife, Dr. Hanne M. de Bruin. It is an inspirational place to visit.  It is a not-for-profit organization which relies entirely on donations, grants and fund-raising for its existence.

Since its foundation, the school has grown and now takes about 70 children between the ages of 5 and 20. All these children come from under-privileged backgrounds, many from very difficult backgrounds to the extent that they need counseling for support.  Whilst the school offers a basic education in all subjects, it specializes in the performing arts and believes in the power of art, music, dance and drama to transform the lives of these young people giving them a ‘voice’ and the confidence to use this voice to express themselves and develop their potential.

Apart from transforming the lives of their students, some other key aims of the school are to:

  • raise the status of Kattaikkuttu – the theatre of the common people in the northern districts of Tamil Nadu, South India
  • break the all male tradition of this art form and open the way for girls and women to have a future in the theatre
  • break the vicious circle of chronic poverty and social and cultural disempowerment through quality artistic training and education

The school’s website provides comprehensive information about development through publication of their annual reports and also has a Facebook site

As well as relying on donations for its existence, the school also relies on volunteers. Currently the school needs volunteer English teachers (who may be trainee teachers) and Teacher Trainers. All volunteers need to commit to spending 6 months at the school – to ensure consistency and stability for the children.

Please forward this post to anyone who you think might be interested in working in this Indian School for 6 months, or who might be willing to provide a donation. The school needs a 1000 euros per year to provide an education for each child.  For further information the email address is

For photos see –

The Role of the Service Sector in the Indian Economy

On a recent trip – 2-9th January 2012 – to Chennai (formerly Madras) in India, I attended part of a small conference, which focussed on the role of the services sector on the growth of the Indian economy. This conference was organised by Lancaster University’s India Centre

The opening speaker was Dr D.K. Srivastava, Dean of the Madras School of Economics – who gave a very interesting presentation on the role of the service sector in the growth of the Indian economy in relation to growth rates in agriculture and industry. This was followed by related presentations by Professor Vudayagi Balasubramanyam –  from Lancaster University, UK, and others.

The current situation in India is that the growth rate of services has overtaken both agriculture and industry and is now more than 50% of GDP. The services sector has the highest growth rate and is the least volatile sector. Growth is particularly marked in public services, IT and financial services. In some areas the growth rate of the services sector is 40-50% due to increased use of mobile technologies.

India therefore has a services-oriented economy. It hasn’t followed traditional growth models (as in China) in that it has skipped the manufacturing stage and has jumped straight from the agricultural stage to services. Growth in the services sector will support growth in the agricultural and industrial sectors, although growth in manufacturing, which causes pollution is not so desirable in terms of job creation and increased prosperity.

As India’s population grows so too does the number of dependents in the lower and higher age groups. For the economy to grow it has to invest. Currently the public sector invests more than it saves. The household sector saves in surplus, but this is not increasing so it cannot continue to support private and public sectors.  There is a massive need to spend on health and education, particularly the education of women, in order to reduce the birth rate. In South India the number of women in the population outnumbers men, so the development of the south of India will depend on the education of women.

In the next two decades (a ‘growth window’ for India which may not come again because the working population to total population ratio increases up to mid 2030s) it will be important for India to absorb the growing labour force if the services sector is to play an important role. India is in a strong position to do this since it has a history of using English for communication, which in turn supports global trade and finance. Only the services sector can have a major impact on poverty. Improvements in agriculture are not having an effect on poverty. To address poverty there is a need to move people from bad sectors to good sectors or from unemployment to employment. This is happening with growth in human skills intensive sectors such as hotels, restaurants and IT, but there are geographical, labour unions and human skills restrictions on labour movement.

The key question raised at the conference was – Can services lead the economy?

For example, can services, such as IT, be taken to rural areas? This has been done in Andhra Pradesh, where the people have been educated through TV and IT with resulting reductions in infant mortality, poverty and fertility rates. So it seems that services could lead the economy, but there needs to be greater equality between the different States and a better gender balance. There is also the need for additional fiscal capacity, tax reforms to fund education, reduction in government debt and the revenue account must be kept in balance. Progress is good but still initial conditions for growth have not yet been achieved.

Connecting through people’s people

Olavipe Homestay Estate

How do we know which connections are important?  My recent trip to India has made me think about this in a number of ways.

All the connections I made on this trip have enriched my life, but I find myself thinking about the homestay we stayed in, in Olavipe, Kerala towards the end of our trip. This was a unique experience, where the family home which has been occupied by family members for 120 years and lived in by six generations, now makes four of its eight bedrooms available for guests. On one wall of the family home has been drawn an extensive family tree. Although the family is now dispersed and there is some concern about whether there is anyone in the next generation who will be willing  to maintain the family home, the family keep in touch with each other, wherever they might be all across the world by email – and yet whilst there was a computer in the family office, the computer was nowhere near as much in evidence in the Parayil home ‘Thekkanatt’ as it is in our home.

Staying at ‘Thekkanatt’ is really like staying with a family. The homestay is managed by two brothers and one of their wives. This was not like a hotel. The family entertained their visitors. We had meals together, long chats on the veranda, trips to the village and round the estate.  I asked the oldest brother how they coped with having guests in their house all the time. He said that it worked well because his brother and his brother’s wife were people’s people. I knew exactly what he meant and it seemed to me that they were experts at connectivity. They were able to engage in conversation with all their guests, whether the conversation was about Indian politics, religion, clothes, arranged marriages, music, or the equivalents of these in other countries. They took photos of all their guests and these photos were posted up on boards in one area of their home. They took a real interest in their guests and were masters at drawing them out, asking unintrusive questions and following through on these questions. For the 5 nights we stayed with them never once did conversation falter and they had a wealth of experience and knowledge to share.

In addition to connecting with their guests from around the world, the family were actively concerned to remain connected to their village roots. The oldest brother explained that in the past village members had been loyal to the family in times of financial difficulty and now the family was trying to repay this by employing village members from 25 families to work on their estate and running monthly gatherings for the village old people and children at their home, arranging outings and so on.

On the connectivism course a number of people were interested in connectivity beyond technology – what it really means to be connected – what are the characteristics of a well connected person and so on. I wonder if being a people’s person sums it up.