“Teacher take your headscarf off !”

These words written by Ebru Umar,a journalist who writes for Metro to a primary school teacher caught my eye. The school comes under the category ‘public’, which means that it opens its doors to students and teachers of all faiths in a spirit of mutual respect. Of the different people who responded in my newspaper to Ebru’s words, here is the one written by Sarah Spruijt.

“Children see the outside world as well

I am a high school student and I grew up in an extremely white environment in the province of Friesland. I have actually never talked to a woman who wears a headscarf and I find that a pity because it is not representative of our society. I find it quite lovely that in the protected atmosphere of Gooi, a primary school teacher chooses to wear one. And let’s be sure of this: she has thought about it for a while and chosen to do so of her own free will. And no – this does not mean that the children of the primary school cannot be brought up to be neutral. You cannot close them from the outside world, and what better place to be confronted with this than in the protected environment of primary school? Apart from the headscarf, the children will not know anything about the religious beliefs of the teacher, and they are anyway going to be coming across headscarves in reality or on the internet. You can hardly live in a world that is free from the expression of beliefs, Ebru. Even children can’t. This is a part of upbringing, a part of Dutch society. And however much of a pity you find it, a part of the future.”

One other respondent’s argument in the newspaper was this: that while the freedom of expression and faith should continue unabated, the outward display of one’s faith should be set aside, because, we, in the Netherlands do not know how to have this discussion.


Yet young Sarah did her best to open up a discussion. I was struck by the fact that a person under eighteen could argue so simply and clearly, and with such wisdom.


In India, this scenario would not play out in quite the same way.  In principle no one could ask another to take off their headscarf or turban. Many Dutch people equate India with Hinduism. India is not a Hindu country. India’s constitution, while being secular, gives different religions a legal framework through ‘personal laws.’ In this way, people can and do express their religion in a variety of ways. This makes it different from the Dutch constitution. In doing so, it echoes Sarah when she says “you can hardly live in a world that is free from the expression of beliefs”. The outward expression is not where the problem lies. It lies in the fact that the outward show of faith, accepted by law, is one of the ways by which to unlawfully exploit or turn against people of another faith. This is what happened when innocent Sikhs were slaughtered in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination as they could be clearly recognized by the turbans they wore. When Sarah writes of the teacher, “she has thought about it for a while and chosen to do so of her own free will”, could she be referring to the risk one takes – opening oneself up to judgement (or worse) with such an outward show of faith?


Many of us here in the Netherlands resort to wearing something by which we draw strength, or which has meaning for us as a way to hold on to our beliefs. I, a teacher have worn a Buddhist pendant in the classroom for the last one year in schools that refer to themselves as having a Christian identity. Yet no one said “teacher take your pendant off”. It appears to me that some symbols or outward expressions of faith are not seen as problematic in the Netherlands, but others are. What would Ebru have to say about my pendant, I wonder.

Unlike Sarah, I have fortunately had the opportunity to talk to women in headscarves in the Netherlands, and have enjoyed the experience.

Here is a link to one such meeting. False Flowers and Real Wasps



Chewing on the intestines of Paris

Here’s a riddle: if the Paris metro lines are the arteries of that great city, then what are its intestines?

paris-centre-mapAnswer – its sewers.

And the intestines of Paris are offered up to visitors just as many of its other attractions. For adults there is a modest fee and for EU children there is none, to descend under the Place de la Résistance in the heart of the great, buzzing metropolis with its treasure troves in abundance.


To my wonder and surprise, I find that, like in India, the profession of the sewage worker is often passed down from father to son. Not so surprising too, that the board is one of the last, because it conveys this bit of information along with the emotion that sums up the entire exhibition. Pride. The son takes up the profession of his father with pride. And Paris reveals the workings of its intestines with pride, and wishes its visitors to know that by making its intestines available for public consumption, so to speak, it is also giving its sewage workers visibility.IMG_3608

Some random thoughts go through my head….

The Delhi metro, the Mumbai local trains, and the Indian Railways are impressive arteries but the intestines of India fail, in some cases appallingly. In the most ‘modern’ of cities, sewage and drinking water pipes can get mixed up, and the consequence on human health is lethal.


I remember the ‘out castes’ – the ‘untouchables’, the ’Harijans’ by other names – who don’t smell so sweet. They are often unprotected and use the most primitive of gear. It is seen as a natural birth-right, or more accurately put, a natural birth wrong. So much so that even the central government hires the same castes to take care of unclean jobs. The latter get a salary, and the employer gets a work force. It is seen as a ‘win-win’. A permanent government job is something to be proud of – anywhere.


It is hard to think with pride about most Indian cities, when it comes to infrastructure. Everyone I know is reeling under the weight of living in them. One insight this Parisian tourist site does give, is the number of years, centuries even, that it took to get its intestines to work as efficiently as they do. Many Indian cities simply do not have that luxury – as they burst at the seams, exploding….

But… I don’t really have the time to digest or absorb much of these intestines …as nausea drives me towards the big metal door with steps leading upwards – back onto the boulevard, allowing me the luxury of air that doesn’t smell like shit.IMG_3600

link to website page of the intestines of Paris



Bungle and the Jungle

Bungle jook, bungle jook, bungle jook.

It’s like a mantra that repeats itself voicelessly. But who said this, when and where. I don’t quite know any more. All I know is that I was a child then. And Bungle Jook was a child’s rendering of Jungle Book.

Bungle Jook wakes up the long ago and makes my heart ache. Childhood and youth are gone. And jungles too.

These days, when I am not busy conflating nature with environment, then I am taking walks or going on bicycle rides around the man made lake, along man made tulip fields or the man made canal or in the man made polder, or the man made woods or the man made botanical gardens. All of these are available at a stone’s throw from my home, and I consider myself extremely fortunate that they are there. Not everyone on the planet can claim such a privilege. Jungle Book in 3D puts the sublime back on the agenda, if for a couple of hours only.

Then, in the days of Bungle Jook, eyes wide open against utter darkIMG_2730ness, riding on a scooter, listening to sounds that emanated from the thick foliage, knowing that a herd of elephants was crossing the road ahead in their search for food from the fields of villagers, I felt the adrenalin flowing freely. Now as I listen to the wind in the trees in the darkness of the woods, my only fear is that a man may just be lying in wait for someone like me, and I try to connect to the breath that flows in and out of me to keep calm and carry on. Then, when the toilet was a mud hut, I almost squatted on a cobra in the process of digesting a frog, now I trip over puddles with the reflection of the clouds in them. Then, the leeches were picked off ankles, toes, legs and stomach, thick with the blood they had feasted on, now I feel the irritation of nettles on my skin. Then, when a million butterflies in myriad colours presented themselves on the blue catwalk in front of my nose, now the duck with the flashy green neck waddles across my path on her way to the water’s edge. Then, when the hundred-member cicada choir added to the feeling that I was slowly and surely being electrocuted as I sweated through each day, now I tell myself it will pass when a gust of wind slaps my face and threatens to fling me backwards.


Then in the time of Bungle Jook, I didn’t know, that many years later, I would be walking in a glass box in the botanical garden, my glasses misty from the moisture generated by a machine. A man, in uniform, would open a little cupboard, and take out one butterfly after another, to place each gently on the branch of flowering plants. I would peep into the cupboard to see eggs, larvae and pupae. In the mean time, the butterfly would fall off the branch. As if it has forgotten how to stand or fly. The man would pull up his trousers and place himself on the ledge to look for the butterfly, then he would pick it up and put it very carefully, back on the branch, holding on to the wings until he feels sure the butterfly has found its feet. He would tell me that the butterflies have come from Costa Rica.IMG_2722

They didn’t fly in. They were flow in, in the belly of another sort of bird.

Dutch Direct – Indian Indirect?

Some years ago I asked an Indian lady working for Tata Corus what she found to be the biggest difference between working in India and in the Netherlands. She said it was the directness of her Dutch colleagues that took some getting used to. I smiled remembering the couple of times I almost packed my bags and left for Schipol airport after hearing my then boyfriend’s ‘no’ followed by a physical removal of himself from the common space. Simple, efficient, clear. Message conveyed. When he did that, I sometimes felt like I’d been slapped on my face.

I think Dutch directness is another manifestation of the idea: ‘we are transparent’. What you see is what you get. Why else is it so easy to look into the living rooms of so many Dutch people? A walk in Amsterdam allows, beside other tourist attractions, the possibility to gaze into the homes of its folk. This attraction is not confined to Amsterdam alone. While on my bicycle sprees I have looked through a lot of windows in Holland. And what you see are orderly, neat spaces designed to tell the viewer that all is well and above board here.

A transparent folk. An honest folk. Those clean, glass windows seem to call out, ‘don’t you see, what you see is what you get’!


Dutch directness to my mind is also about efficiency. Why would you spend time and energy on a long explanation that implies a ‘no’ when you can simply say it (and maybe leave to get onto other important things)? If it is in the interest of the listener, they may follow up with a question or follow you, to know the reason for the ‘no’. If they don’t, you were right – the story underlying the ‘no’ was not so important, anyway.

In contrast, many people in other parts of the world find the story underlying the message more important than a direct utterance like ‘no’. They take the listener with them, meandering sometimes, so that when the ‘no’ message comes, it resembles a nudge and not a slap. Quite often, it is nuanced – so that it reflects many a possibility along the ‘yes- no’ continuum.

This is often how communication goes in India. Indirect.

However, some Dutch people who have been to India tell me that they have experienced a shocking form of directness in their Indian colleagues. It’s a good idea to think about where and when this direct form of communication takes place, because that tells one a lot about India, and of course about Holland.


Some useful links to the website of India Connected


Working in India is a feast


Adventurous entrepreneurs perform better in India


Questions (and answers about working in India)




Two and a half intense years of studying appear to be coming to an end. By tomorrow I may just be a student with the number ‘s1634690’ in the administration system of Leiden University. As I wait for the last grade to find its mark, I decide to put down some thoughts that have nothing to do with those grades, but with other values, in other schools, with other teachers and other companions and friends.

Last year, I could not spare much time to support two institutions on two different ends of the world. I’m speaking of the University of Amsterdam (Uva) here in the Netherlands where I am now, and the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII)– where I once was. Glancing furtively up from my books – telling myself I wasn’t going to be spending much time on a quick catch up, I saw how students of both these ‘ex schools’ of mine stood up in rebellion.images

In Amsterdam, a year ago in February of 2015, just after I finished my Masters in English Literature, students peacefully took over the administrative heart of the University – a historic monument and the equally impressive building that housed the faculty of humanities. I had spent many wonderful hours in the latter as a student. The protest was in response to budget cuts to the humanities in favour of those subjects that supposedly draw the crowds (and the money) and apparently contribute to careers. In other words – the students were protesting against the idea that the humanities don’t really count. Languages were badly hit. I was told that my thesis supervisor’s contract was not renewed and that another teacher of mine left for America, where the future looked brighter. One of the things the students tried to negotiate was a representation of those who learn (students) and those who teach (teachers) in decisions that involve what a university stands for. Thus, not managers and more managers. Its not just the economy stupid.

images-1When I met one of my teachers at a seminar, I asked him if there was anything I could do to show my solidarity. He said, ‘tell as many people as you can to go to University’. Because, quite simply, if enough students don’t register for the humanities, the latter are seen as irrelevant to society and scrapped. This same teacher, who later gave the inaugural speech at our graduation ceremony had done his research, and could convincingly show that graduates of studies like English language and literature do find jobs – and ones that deeply satisfy them. But…jobs made up one part of the speech. He lingered with love on what literature does to the mind, the heart and soul of those engaged with it. Hearing him that day, anyone would understand those protesting students whose message was clear: there’s more to life than returns and efficiency.

In the Film Institute of India, the protest began when unqualified people were appointed to run the institution. Or…differently put, people whose qualification was highly evident in their worship of the prime minister and not in their knowledge of cinema; people whose credentials lay more in their membership of Hindutva and less in the skills required to really educate young, impressionable minds in anything else. Every now and then, I caught a glimpse of a classmate, or friend, now alumnus of FTII taking the time to go to the campus and address the students, to repeat everything I heard as a protesting student so many years ago there – that this place – where the questioning, curious minds of all those who enter its gates – rich, poor – from every corner of the sub continent- had to be kept just that way – open to questioning and curiousity – and it was now threatened with some form of ideology that opposes those very precious qualities. Filmmakers, thinkers, writers joined in – one did not need to be an alumnus of FTII. One needed to care about what was happening in the society at large under Hindutva. I read of the protest march in Delhi – of broken bones; of the surgeon who reduced his fees when he realized that those broken bones came from a lathi charge. I read about the corner shop that stocked magazines of the student protest – so word would get around.images-2

In both cases, police were called in to use force to break the protests. In both cases, the message had already spread and was not any more confined to these institutions alone. It resonated with a larger public. In India, this student protest spurred many more voices of dissent.

But why am I writing all this? Because maybe by tomorrow, I will have met the formalities required for a teaching qualification. Because my newspaper says that since robots and computers are going to be taking on much of the administrative tasks and the mechanical work we do, schools should be focusing on nurturing those qualities that make us ‘human’.

And where do you think the word ‘humanities’ could be coming from?

Human it is.