There are many of us who as parents worry that their children are fast losing out on their culture and unlearning whatever little that they pick up from their home. This pressure is perhaps felt further by those who live away from India and are often worried about how to at least make their children understand their roots, if not follow them. To such people Mona Vijaykar would be an interesting name.
There are some people who do so many things in a lifetime that when you meet them you wonder where or how they get all the time for it, what actually drives them? Mona is one such person, who wears many hats. Not being content with writing a series of books for children (She is the author of ‘The Vee Family’ books ‘for children) or writing articles, poems and songs for magazines and newspapers to promote awareness of Indian culture or being an educator, Mona has now for some years been running a special program called ‘India in classrooms’. To add happiness to her efforts, this presentation is tied in to the sixth grade standard prescribed curriculum for social studies and history.
She says that when she migrated to the states in the 90 s with her family following her husband’s job, she was aghast at the perception of India and Indians in the eyes of the people in the US. In fact she says she was more perturbed by the fact that many, Indian parents and their children lived like ‘closet Indians’ keeping their culture hidden from their non-Indian friends.
Also there seemed to be hardly any children’s literature that the young Indian ‘Amerikids’ could relate to and many a time she found that textbooks, encyclopedias, newspapers reinforcing negative stereotypes. She says, what was worse was,
“People referred to us as EAST Indians and called Native Americans as “INDIANS”!! That would really get my goat. So I first set out to clear that confusion until it made the headlines in the San Jose Mercury News."
As such when I ask Mona, “When or why did you feel the need for something like 'India in classrooms?”, she says-
“The need for India in classroom arose from the fact that I found a lot of confused things being taught and passed off as Indian culture and heritage. In spite of my repeated attempts to correct, the simplest misrepresentations in the school curriculum were often thwarted by Indian teachers and parents, who were either reticent or plain misinformed about various aspects of the Indian civilization. I realized that this phenomenon (American Born CONFUSED Desiness) was perpetuated by IBCDs (Indian Born Confused Desis). The onus was upon us to generate deeper awareness about the Indian civilization; the absence of accurate, researched information had primarily contributed to the gross misunderstandings, misrepresentations, stereotyping of Indian history, culture etc., in schools, colleges, museums, media and other institutions.”
Mona’s work perhaps assumes much significance today, because most children either don’t take much interest in their culture or roots or are actually not taught about it in an interesting and ‘non lecture mode’. As such I thought that her idea of correct representation of what India or Indian culture is, might hold good for Indian children in India too. When I asked Mona about this she says, -
“Do you think, as a concept ‘India in a classroom’ would be good for students in India too?”
“Yes, It is essential and critical to introduce this program in India, Maitreyee! I was invited to speak at a school in Juhu, Mumbai. Since my presentation also unfolds the symbolic meanings of visual forms it helps reveal our deeper cultural connections. Many teachers as well as children expressed pleasant surprise over the scientific basis of our ancient philosophy that was unknown to them and by the same token Muslim, Hindu and Christian kids were intrigued by the knowledge. What was scheduled to be an hour long presentation …turned out to be over two hours! My objective in the long run is to help children of future generations to look beyond our differences and help instill greater compassion and trust than what previous generations grew up with".
Here is one very comprehensive feedback about the program- http://www.indiainclassrooms.org/reviews.htm#letters
Mona says that much before she heard Gandhi ji’s saying, ‘be the change you want to see’, she tried to implement it out of the simple urge of a parent who didn’t want her own kids growing up in an confused environment. While her intentions are sincere in bringing the right knowledge to Indians born outside, there are many detractors for a program such as this, she says.
Today, there are many both in the Indian community and those outside the community who realize the importance of such a program and have actually come out to support her and spread the news about the program. But it has been a long struggle says Mona, “The biggest hurdles in this program have always been from unexpected quarters, where one would have expected support. The flip side, of a program like this are the constant questioning of its need and subsequently there are many challenges:
Many parents are ignorant about the prescribed curriculum, some are afraid that I might be “bringing religion into the schools”. Funnily enough many parents confuse India in Classrooms’ academic presentation to be a sari tying, turban tying, roti making classroom demonstration! At other times of course, many parents think they know everything there is to know about India but often do not take responsibility for the misinformation that they might perpetuate due to lack of thorough home work. She says sadly sometimes changing the mindset of ignorant Indians is a greater challenge in fact!
India in classrooms, as a program is designed to provide practical knowledge through art projects, activities and slides. Also the positive implications of the program are perhaps that it is not about glorifying India but putting historical facts into perspective. Mona also makes it clear that the program stays clear of any political or religious group, because promoting religion or politics is not her philosophy.
The growth of a country and its people lies as much in its people knowing about its history, its culture and its essence, thus when I ask Mona if her program ‘India in Classrooms’ has dispelled any specific myths till now, she says-
“Given the time constraints…I shall tell you of three key misrepresentations which are I have constantly addressed.
a) Aryan Invasion theory
c) Caste System
Although my explanations are detailed here is a very simplified synopsis:
a)I tell them there was no invasion and that this is a theory. I present several theories that are very well illustrated in the book ‘In search of the Cradle of civilization by Dr Subhash Kak.
b)I tell them that the ‘many Gods’ are multiple representations of the One GOD
c) I explain that India once had a very efficient social order with mutual respect and dignity of labor until the system was abused by those who wielded power. Knowledge that was regarded as the basis of the rise of the Indian civilization was withheld from its people and that led to the downfall of India’s power.
"Another funny one is that all teachers put up ENORMOUS drawings of the Taj Mahal when they embark upon Ancient India in their history class. I remind them that it is like putting up a picture of the Eiffel Tower when doing ancient Europe. They have no clue that the Taj represents only medieval Indian history and that there are more astounding monuments which also perhaps equally if not more represent the true ancient India.Yet another aspect is the linguistic connections across the globe. I show them how words in English have evolved from Sanskrit…something that really amazes them.” says Mona
It is said that teachers are some of the highest regarded professionals, because they have the capacity to make young minds think, to question and to evolve. In her quest of teaching about India and its culture, Mona Vijaykar perhaps goes a long way in giving back to society, what she has received. Hopefully some children somewhere in the world will be better equipped to know their roots after this program.