In Conversation with Shakuntala Hawoldar

“We should not become part of the petty games by playing God in the world of education”

Shakuntala Hawoldar’s latest book ‘The sun does not set and other works’ was launched last Friday by the President of the Republic Kailash Purryag. This adds to the long list of publications brought out by her over a span of 45 years since she set foot in Mauritius in 1968. She started her career here as schoolteacher, went on to join the then Mauritius College of Air (MCA), to eventually retire as its Deputy Director. Along the way she tuned in to poetry: ‘I have seen strange things’, ‘Moods, Moments, and Memories’, ‘Hymns from Beau Bois and stories for Moksha’ are some of her published works, besides one illustrated book on the “picturesque Siva Temple on the banks of the ‘Ganga Talao’ lake of Mauritius and the Sivarathri” – ‘Mahasivarathri’. She has also penned down hundreds of articles and interviews with the media on issues affecting society, language, education, etc.

Excerpts from a conversation with Shakuntala on a number of issues she feels strongly about:

Poetry as self-expression and self-exploration

Poetry writing is indeed both a highly expressive, creative and therapeutic release of thoughts and feelings. In Eliot, and in Sartre and Camus the existential angst is felt throughout. Why am I here on this planet? What is my relation to the other? What is death? All these thoughts plague all writers from time immemorial and the answers of course vary according to the sensibility and sensitivity of the artist concerned. Just enjoy the poetry of Rumi, Gibran, Hafiz, Tagore, Shakespeare, Whitman, Longfellow, Yeats, Dylan Thomas, Maya Angelou. How can we dismiss them as dreamers? Good poetry takes you from the merry-go-round of living and helps you to analyse your own life and look for meaning in existence. It takes the person beyond the materialistic level of existence or just an animal existence and survival. It goes deeper to uncover the real essence of living.

Poetry can be of practical help too

Many assume that poetry is an abstract undertaking having little relevance to hard realities. This is a mistaken view. Poetry forms, amongst others, the basis for music and songs which bring out the subtle and sublime aspects of our being. Tagore used a lot of his poetry as basis of his most popular folk songs. Music and songs are easy to communicate and link with people’s emotions and poetry used as a lyrical basis can transform melodious sounds and meaning. In hospitals, in hospices, in special areas of care and suffering, ‘bhajans’ and mantras which are other forms of poetry, are known to have helped tremendously especially by what is referred to as “inner healing”. Even dying can be more peaceful with poetry and music. A new science called thanatology is being developed these days to accompany dying people. There is a great potential for poetry and musical poetry to be used in education, in specialized care of the handicapped and autistic, as well as prisoners and it can help soothe depression and suppress the negativities of the human condition.

From the merry-go-round of living to the real essence of existence

Today we are living troubled times where the social pictures are flitting fast and writers are finding it difficult to analyse, assess and predict. In fact even describing this fast moving quantum world is dizzying. You have the Hollywood and Bollywood absurdities, the crazy stories of the media and music icons like Madonna, Rihanna and others. We also have the crazier world of politicians who live in their own bubble of unreality and rape and smash countries without care or mercy. Look at what Blair and Bush have done! What it costs the nation, the world, the poor taxpayers. Then look at the world of finances, economic dealings and wheeling and dealing involving banks, multinationals and corrupt companies. These have used poor people’s money to play chess or worse still dominoes! Behind all this Tamasha we have the tsunamis, floods, cyclones and earthquakes to add to our agony.

Good poetry takes you away from the merry-go-round of living and helps you analyse your own life and look for meaning in existence. It stops seeing it at a materialistic level of existence or just an animal existence and survival. It tries to go deeper into its real essence.

Sources of inspiration

The greatest thing that can happen to the Mauritian student is to really enjoy reading. The world of good books is one single domain that brings unmatched joy, laughter, knowledge and understanding. It is a great ‘Sadhana’ (contemplation) to be able to read books of great minds and souls and grow spiritually. It is well known that all the great minds who have moved mountains and brought light and peace in the world are also good readers, whether it is heads of state or great harbingers of change in art and science. Tolstoy himself, a tower of knowledge, moved from depression to joy, culling out one hundred sayings of Sri Ramakrishna in 1909.

See the inspiring words of Vivekananda:

“Do you see how much energy, how much power, how many forces are still lurking behind that frame of yours? What scientist has known all that is in man? …Therefore you must not say that you are weak… You know but little of that which is within you. For behind you is the ocean of infinite power and blessedness.”

I have myself found everything I have sought in my readings of books. Besides, as you grow spiritually, whether as an an individual, a country or a continent, it is thoughts that make us or mar us. We need to fill ourselves with great ennobling thoughts which will lift us from our mediocrity and foolishness and stop following politicians and entertainment idols blindly and instead use discrimination or judgement.

Some thoughts about education in Mauritius

The world of education in Mauritius will need to think out of the box. I have been a teacher and the thoughts you place before a growing child are very important. To do so, we need to address issues, such as:

·       Why don’t we have a book of comparative cultures where we can share the different beliefs of our compatriots?

·       Why don’t we have an English TV channel to improve English learning for Mauritians for formal and non-formal education? We will not make progress if we just sit and criticize each other but don’t move towards a proactive support system to improve the learning of English.

·       Why is the media section of the Open University (ex MCA) closing down? Our children are being left on their own to navigate without the necessary compass. As a result, the only order of the day is competition and material success. Is that all?

·       Is it only money interests that should govern us?

I would like to state that private tuitions should not be banned or legislated against. Private tuitions exist because parents are not happy with the standard of teaching in the school classrooms. Who monitors the class performance? How do children continue to fail and why are the remedies not succeeding?

Teacher training should be an ongoing activity by senior teachers who are retired or able professors who don’t mind giving time to teachers, region by region or school by school for improvement of teaching and using English more creatively in the classroom. There should be inter-school dramas, poetry recitations, debates, quizzes which will directly help to enhance student performance. Libraries should exist in each town or district and be looked after by able librarians. They should not close down promptly at 4 PM but should be kept open for as long as public transport is available. More library classes should be made available, more tutorials for weaker students. Teachers should enter the profession not because it brings them a regular salary but because they have an innate aptitude to teach or a flair for children’s welfare. If that is not so, you will get a lot of square pegs in round holes and eventually more problems to handle than you bargained for. We don’t realize that all of life is interconnected and also inter-dependent. We cannot do something foolishly and expect everything to fall into place at the end. As we sew so will the shirt come out or as we sow so will we reap.

Medium of instruction in our schools, some suggestions for teaching

With regard to the medium of instruction, I don’t think petty politicians should interfere and bring the mother tongue issue into the game. We should know what the global reality is, what is truly good and profitable to us. English is the main language of the Internet, free trade, banking, commerce, diplomacy, security, health, education, etc. all over the world. It is bonding us all with the rest of humanity.

We should trust Chacha Ramgoolam’s vision of education where he told us not to interfere with the supremacy of English as a language par excellence to help us cross over to internationalism, globalization, trade, education, etc. We should support the system to reinforce the language and not debilitate it and throw it out finally to our utter loss.

Now Mauritius is well poised to play a bigger role in the Indian Ocean region. Mr Shyam Saran from India has said we should stop playing our role as a sideshow when we have a bigger sea space in Mauritius to explore, exploit and share.

We must listen carefully and intelligently to the wise observations made by critics – both outsiders and insiders – and not become part of the petty games by playing God in the world of education.

The three-language formula holds good for Mauritius. English continues to be the main language of social, political, economic intercourse. French provides a good medium as a second language, why should we lose out if we have already acquired a good European language? We also need the third important (Asian) language to express ourselves whether at home, in the street or abroad.

All three languages should be taught expertly by teachers who know and admire the language whether it be Hindi, Urdu, Bhojpuri, Telegu, Creole, Marathi, Tamil, Mandarin, etc. These languages are just not mother tongue material only They are the custodians of some of the greatest cultures in the world which has given birth to millions of books, music, poetry, songs, histories and cultures too vast to be numbered. Many of these languages are over 5000 years old and have undergone perfection over this long stretch of time. They are not a nascent expression. In fact, if we have to talk of mother tongue we have to go back to Sanskrit which is the mother of all languages. In fact, there are educationists in the UK who have gone back to the learning and teaching of Sanskrit.

We must build the spiritual riches of these languages because that will give the backbone to all knowledge that is acquired. I have wonderful poems from Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu traditions and they are all so beautiful and enriching. We should go through the multicultural ways towards the idea of One-World-One-Humanity. When we use the word ‘humanity’, we mean a thousand cultures and a million languages but all moving towards Oneness of spirit.

The MIE in its quest for values can prepare these neutral books of poetry, prayers and musical rhymes which will enhance learning at a deeper emotional level. In fact primary school children love learning new languages since language learning through music and dance offers no barriers to learning. Living in a multicultural society, we can easily acquire language-learning skills and increase out breadth of understanding.

Imagine how wonderful it would be if we all learn Mandarin or Urdu. We would be able to appreciate the different cultures of the world and not live in separate ghettos of insulated understanding and misunderstand people from different climes and cultures.

Globalization means learning, growing, enjoying languages for diplomacy, for trade, for education, for communication and of course for entertainment.

Multiracial and multicultural Mauritius

Mauritius is a multiracial country with a population coming from different continents, Asia, Africa, Europe. It is undoubtedly one having different cultures and aspirations which is actually seen in the lives of the population and which forms the basis of our ethnicity, culture, attitudes to mind, matter and other aspects of life, work cultures and ethos and ethics. Every culture according to my understanding has its high and low aspects since man belonging to any culture will be exposed to his high evolutionary aspirations as well as its negative or regressive sides.

There will be a group moving towards the higher values with stricter discipline, while others will be moving towards its more materialistic pulls which do not respect the means towards obtaining fame, name, wealth or sexual satisfaction. They move helter-skelter like cheap opportunists to grab whatever they can, regardless of consequences to themselves or others. This creates imbalances nationally and internationally which go by the names of scams, drug trafficking, child prostitution and other ills at different levels of our lives and works. Many persons actually lose respect for themselves and others in the pursuit of greed and exploitation of the other and lose their innate spirituality. Mere pleasure-seeking and animal exhibitionism bring all kinds of problems to families and to places of work. This kind of situation leads to the loss of sensible awareness in our society.

Gender issues and social support system for vulnerable families

Gender including men and women relating within and without institutions, counselling before marriage, guiding adolescents, introducing sex education in college, bringing in parental awareness, all become part of the new role for families. Maybe having more support for couples contemplating children, abortion, single mother issues all need to be looked at afresh.

I think it is time to shift our understanding of the role of the Women’s Ministry and make sure it responds to the true needs of the family as a whole. I feel there is a degree of “lostness” amongst members of the family who are finding it difficult to survive in Mauritius. Old age, poverty, disease and all kinds of abuse have rendered the family very vulnerable and these issues will need to be looked at afresh if we have to offer remedies. We also need to have a personalized touch because, after all, people are not mere statistics or numbers.

The family social worker is a new profile that will need to be added to the support system for the family. The role of the family social worker is to understand the nature of the family she is visiting, assess the real issues such as whether there is drug addiction, alcohol abuse, assess the real income levels and find out the true needs of the family. The family social worker can fit the role of the friend, the supporter and carer in these circumstances.


* Published in print edition on 31 October 2013

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