31 December 2011

Remembering Bal Bharati

To Parth Taneja


The idea that Bal Bharati, GR branch can be the best school in its area will immediately seem incredulously ridiculous to anyone who has actually studied in the blessed place. Of course, we all have more or less fond memories and of course after passing out we more or less remember it fondly as the good old place, but thinking hard and strong there are few who would actually agree that it was, or is, half as good as the papers would have us believe. Seriously, Bal Bharati best amongst all the other heavy weights in Central Delhi? Khullar Saab must have loosened CES’s purse strings a bit.

Jokes apart, does it really make any sense? Bal Bharati best? Okay, the survey says it scores highest in terms of perception, but even then, who would be stupid enough to perceive that place best amongst all others?

Don’t get me wrong here. This is not to indicate that I don’t or didn’t like being there, nor that after passing out I’ve acquired airs and disdain to acknowledge my schooling. None of that, no: instead, what irks me is this very thing about being best, this entire charade of being better than what you are, of trying to be better and better and better still. It has brought some changes, this aspirational anxiety, but given the inside reports I last had of it, Bal Bharati remains what it has always been and will always be: average.

Thankfully, I say. Seriously, that’s what it’s always been and that’s what it’s best as, an average school amongst so many more better equipped, more professional, hi-fi schools. Average. A charmingly average school.

It’s good to be average, isn’t it? Like anything, Bal Bharati has its faults, but the best thing about it is that it’s average. It’s not like any of your ambitious, verbose institutions aspiring to make the ideal man out of children. Of course, the school diary and PR material has some such bosh to that effect, but then I suppose that’s for the perception surveys. The inside story remains that Bal Bharati has, given the few fortunate exceptions, more or less incompetent, bungling teachers, a lackadaisical attitude towards sports and extra-curricular activities and fails to make anything more than semi-noble savages out of its students.

And yes, that’s the best thing about it. Most students tend to be cocky when they graduate and remember almost all their teachers as bumbling, bilious ignoramuses. Common human tendency which, I suppose, is common enough to apply to most students of most schools. Again, later on in life most people, even as they sentimentalise, tend to think a bit flippantly of the educational institutions they were part of, remembering the good with the irritating but still thinking of all of the latter in a sepia-tinted, oh-old-days way. I have absolutely no doubts about being privy to such sentiments, but when I say Bal Bharati is best being average I don’t just deprecate my alma mater in that half-joking, flippant manner. I mean more.

More in the sense that I feel being average is one of the best assets of any educational institution today. In Bal Bharati, I never felt myself under any extraordinary pressure to perform, never saw myself faced with any larger than life standards to come up to. There were always extra-curricular activities, there were always assemblies and house meetings and sports days, but there was never, as so many students – and more, their parents – complain, any overwhelming, continuous pressure to exert yourself more than what you might desire.

That is to say there was impetus and ample opportunities were always provided, but you were never forced into availing of those opportunities, never taken into the whole paraphernalia of competitions and events for the school’s greater glory. There is always rivalry between schools, but as students of Bal Bharati – and I suppose I’m not alone in assuming so – most of us never felt that rivalry. We couldn’t care less what students of other schools were like and what they would think of us precisely because that intensely cutting competitive spirit just wasn’t around to instil that peculiar sense of pride and belonging which institutions with their glorious traditions and grand narratives always inspire. It was, and perhaps still is, a school where you could be, spend your days peacefully with all the momentous upheavals of infancy, childhood and adolescence without coordinators and managers hammering you for some supposedly prestigious competition designed to make you better. If nothing else, Bal Bharati makes you thick skinned in some subtle ways and so the entire rhetoric of bettering yourself which all schools bombard their students with has little affect on Bal Bharatians.

Which is why when I hear news of Bal Bharati becoming “an international school” and what not, I thank my lucky stars of getting out in time. Being average, it was a healthy mix of ambition and incompetence, of imposition and free will. Certain minimums were always expected and efforts made to attain them, but beyond them only the chosen few fell victim of the headministerial staff’s ambitions. There was always guidance, but you still had enough leeway to explore yourself and find your own way, not be straightjacketed into models of the ideal would-be scientist, the ideal would-be engineer, the ideal would-be accountant, the ideal would-be sports star and so on. I find people of my batch and my class doing various interesting and remarkable things, people whom almost everybody hardly expected to be good at anything being more successful than anybody’s wildest dreams. There are always students of this sort and it is their hard work and genius of course, but what marks Bal Bharati distinct is that it never stigmatised such students for not living up to general, public school expectations. Yes, attempts would always be made to co-opt us into the all-rounded personality network, but something in the very fabric of that place prevented most of us from falling prey to that typically industrialist, market-oriented disease. We had good times and bad, but we never felt the pressure to become marketable in that sense.

Which is why the Bal Bharati I know and remember is best being average.


Author’s note:

On Chaddi Shopping

Buying chaddis is quite the tour de force in layers of gender and class hegemonies. When you buy a chaddi, you’re not just buying a piece of supportive garment: you’re buying into a host of intricate, well nigh seamless hegemonies.

This is painfully apparent from even a cursory consideration of the sort of advertising chaddi manufactures usually bombard their hapless consumers with. Going by the models on chaddi boxes and billboards, one would think only persons sculpted in certain very limited and limiting ways are entitled to underclothes. I don’t see many people objecting to this extremely insensitive piece of very-in-your-face public discourse: it’s almost as if you have to exercise and be ‘in shape’ in that particularly fetishised way globalising urban aesthetics demand to be entitled to something as simple and commonplace as a chaddi.

But then, what is simple and commonplace? The air we breathe is commonplace enough, but not so simple that just a slight shift in its parameters cannot easily wipe humanity out of the commonplace. Chaddis are commonplace, everybody seems to have them, but I suppose a percentage survey will reveal that much of humanity still lacks access to them, leave alone good and useful types of them. Of course, what is good and useful when it comes to chaddis is also open to contestation: ay, the very idea that chaddis are good and useful too is open to debate, but assuming that they are, the probable proposition that much of our kind is forced to survival sans them combined with the fact that those who are are exposed to such propaganda as inculcates a sense of doubt and insufficiency regarding their suitability to them is enough for one to question not just the praxis of chaddi advertising, as this article is doing, but the very idea of chaddi itself.

It will be clear to all discerning individuals – if, i.e., there are any individuals – that the mores of chaddi marketing are woven deep into the fabric of global and globalising geopolitical considerations. Chaddis are extended parts of the state apparatus that subsumes rebellious figures into tight-fitting, straitjacketed outlines. A visit to a hosiery shop will establish as much: the panoptical vision of the establishment achieves an inverted power dialectics in which the customer is being looked upon, assessed by an unending elasticity of ideologies. For in this case, the gaze, in looking, is not as much as looking on as looking in, looking on to look in in a way that negates its selfhood – that more or less solid sense of being with which we usually perceive the world – for a naturalised, standardised vision generated much too forcibly by a pre-designed, top-heavy volition of being. In that remarkable sense, it is not my eyes which look: I look, but through the eyes of the chaddi manufacturer in quite the same way s/he wants me to look.

Of course, one does accomplish the task, one does pick and choose, but that still doesn’t negate the functionality of these defining forces. For the choices one makes are as often dictated by availability as by feasibility and in making the feasible available only the sadly happy illusion of consumerism is strengthened. Shopping for chaddis is a simple task of knowing and judging, but what the basis of that knowledge and the parameters of that judgment are are considerations too often overlooked in the strapping desire to fit in.