Unloading my frustrations – the birth of ‘Unfair & Lovely’

It is just so heartwarming for me to see my students in Nilogal, India, enthusiastically show up to class on time, give me their full attention despite the technical difficulties we sometimes face due to poor connections and dutifully send me their homework on WhatsApp from phones they receive access to only when their parents come home from work late in the evening (many students don’t have a household phone and show me their homework via Skype during class).

I constantly try to think of ways to help support their learning better..that one hour I get with them on a daily basis is just not sufficient. To this end, I sent them dictionaries, I created a bilingual Youtube channel, English for Kannada speakers, for bilingual explanations of English grammar concepts, and I created basic grammar books via a wonderful resource called StoryWeaver

A dear friend, Kavitha Amarnath (Zuggri Branding House), who I met through a previous volunteering stint of mine at a microlending non profit, had moved to Bengaluru and works as a digital artist and illustrator. She has successfully published a book entitled ‘Why can’t I see God?’. She wanted to collaborate to work on books to help my students. We created a bilingual workbook with illustrations using the story of the thirsty crow, one that has been told to children over generations in India. But we wanted to do more..there are stories that amuse..there are stories that show that good wins over evil..but what about books that make you think..books that make you question..books that make you want to change things?

When one thinks of problems in India, they may think of poverty, malnutrition, corruption, overpopulation..the list goes on. But the one problem we are so oblivious of..to the extent that we don’t even consider it a problem..is colorism! It’s an open secret that Indian society, by and large, glorifies fair skin. This is evidenced by the multitude of fairness skin cream ads on TV, the plethora of ‘Wanted fair bride’ ads in the matrimonial sections of newspapers, and the constant jibbers that dark people are subject to day in and day out! People who don’t think this is a problem..are probably blind..or fair! I passionately detest colorism..and want to erase it..from every society that glorifies fair skin..thus my book ‘Unfair & Lovely’!:)

Kavitha and I got together and created an illustrated story that resonates very easily with the millions of folks that have been taunted by this evil and enlightens people who choose to ignore it. The characters in the book are pre-teens, an age when kids are just beginning to realize how they look. Our intention behind this age for the book is to nip this issue in the bud, right where it needs to be dispelled! Regardless of your views on colorism, we promise that our book will engage, entertain and motivate!:)

Teaching a classroom – thousands of miles away

Volunteering with 100 Books is great..it exposes me to a lot of new children’s books in the Indian marketplace. I grew up reading Amar Chitra Katha comics, Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books. I can’t recall very many other options during those times. But now, I see a lot of books, in an Indian setting, with characters and themes that Indians can relate to better. I think that is wonderful..my exposure to books from the West as a child almost led me to believe that only kids in the West have all the fun! And that’s so not true.:)

100 Books gives me an opportunity to help kids from my country..but it’s still a small amount of volunteering time that is spent on any given day. I find that I enjoy working with English..I haven’t had the opportunity to do it very much given my engineering roles in the corporate world. Sadly, there is no such thing as creative writing for technical documentation!:) A dear friend mentioned that I check out eVidyaloka, an organization that sets up digital classrooms in Indian villages. 

I was initially hesitant that this may not work out with the time difference..10-12 hours between California and India..give or take. I went ahead and registered anyway. Within 2 days, I was brought on board and posted as an English teacher to a school in Nilogal, Karnataka (the state I am from). Having never visited that area, I looked it up on Google maps and found that it is approximately 7 hours from Bengaluru.

My 7th grade class of approximately 12 students (some days there are fewer as they may need to go work in the fields) starts at 10 AM Indian time and runs for an hour. The classroom has a big monitor, computer and a fairly steady internet connection..all powered by solar panels..which is a blessing since the village faces frequent power cuts.We use Skype and although there is a recommended textbook for class, students aren’t always at that particular learning level. I find that I have to create a lot of my own content, and also tailor it to each student’s needs as they are not all at the same level.I am especially indebted to the classroom assistant, a lady named Nagarathna, who ensures that everything is intact at their end and ensures that the students pay attention.   

Overall, the English class is more along the lines of an ESL class, as students in rural areas of India are not exposed to English as much. I will say however that I needed to use more Kannada(the local language) in the beginning..but the students have come a long way now as they greet me by asking “How are you, mam?” and respond with “You are welcome!” when I thank them.:)