The following letter is a response to the essay about cateism in Krishnamurti schools written by Prerna S.
I read your comment with interest. Among other issues you speak of, I see a strong reflection on the links between food and casteism in the ‘K ’Schools you mention. I would like to respond to a few of your statements.
“turn a systemic issue into my one-person observation”
I see that food may throw up cognitive dissonances of many kinds, whatever may be the diet. The contemporary world is defined by strong and competing diversities of perspective; what may be defined as a ‘systemic’ issue changes tone, and often morphs for me into many layers of personal observation – most of them discordant with one another. (This is not to say that universal rights are, or should be, in question.)
I too will talk therefore from personal observation in the only two K schools I have worked in. At the outset, I see sensitivity to caste as one lens that throws light on the chaos of one’s upbringing and conditioning in relation to poverty and inequity. The biggest systemic inequity I see in India today is invalidation of knowledge and unfair educational scope – and I think this is not remediable by statute or reservation or even farsighted programmes alone, but on what is real as experience of learning – for each individual learner. This is an entirely different frame, I know, and I am mentioning it only to say that I feel a school has such scope of learning.
“perpetuating a much subtler, quieter form of the same evil that is casteism in the processes shared with them.”
In this regard, some information: the son of the watchman of The School (KFI) Annamalai Anna (this is what ALL staff were called when I left The School KFI in 2013-14) was perhaps your schoolmate, since he studied there. I definitely feel many more like him need to be admitted into K schools. But I am glad that you were not told how many savarna and how many bahujan were in your class or the school. I also know that some students study in that school on complete or partial scholarships, and you might not know who they are. I don’t know what processes are initiated there today to sensitise all students to atrocities of caste and its many implications – but I do feel reasonably sure that you and your savarna friends are not the only people being ‘protected’ in this.
The hierarchies of “skilled” and “unskilled” labour and the invisibilisation of bahujan labour within a caste-society
Another interesting piece of information you may have forgotten –
The Class XI programme at The School (KFI) for many years included a three-week stay at a small old rural farmhouse in the Dalit Reservation Panchayat of Kilapakkam. This stay involved cooking, and washing, participating in agriculture activities, playing with the young people in the neighbourhood and teaching at the Panchayat Middle School, along with the learning of academic subjects. I have not observed the practice of vegetarian cooking blocking any interaction with the predominantly bahujan neighbourhood. In fact, the small community of Yadavas in the parallel road would never eat what the students (and staff) had cooked, because we all would eat with Murugaiyyan Anna and his family – who lived with us – and participated in all the activities, including cooking, and they were bahujan.
However, Sahadevan Anna, from the neighbouring road, from the Yadava community, who also worked with the school, would regale us (students and staff) when we walked to the nearby ery with stories of cooking the different varieties of delicious rats that were found in various seasons. And wild and bred ducks on twig-fire, among many other stories on types of grasses, herbs in the area, names of desi cows and the problems with breeding goats when so much land was being fenced off as real estate. What all of us understood seemed valuable as learning about equity. Many in the village had no other source of nutritious food than rats on many occasions, and they would come to the ery to catch a few. Later, on another trip, the legendary Krishnammal at LAFTI spoke among other things about mussels and how they were collected, cooked and eaten, to Class XI. Even that source of protein was being taken away by large shrimp hatcheries and coastal zone violations! We ate one-dish vegetarian food, for the few good days of learning we spent at LAFTI. Cognitive dissonance – should we have eaten mussels to express solidarity? – maybe there was some learning, even without. Provocation does not seem to be the only way to learn about caste. Nor, I feel, is the advocacy of a structured similarity of approach to the politics of food in India.
to offend the comforts of the vegetarian-brahmin co-travellers.
Also – just throwing a different perspective to the buying of non-vegetarian food on a school trip – I may not have been on the trip you describe, but as someone who accompanied students on many trips, I remember discussions setting norms for the trip, and ‘Buying with one’s own monies’ was negotiated. Often these ‘monies’ (we called it just ‘cash you can bring’) were intended for local crafts bazaars at Tilonia, or Wardha or Zaheerabad. If a teacher came down heavily on the students, it may have been because of the inequity of only one group eating whatever they liked. I have not seen caste ignored or side-stepped in any interactive forum with other schools either, including the annual Drama Festival – or the annual Symposium.
The “Krishnamurti schools” in India are “alternative” schools
“To have the capacity to earn a livelihood in the present world, the present civilisation, whatever that civilisation is, a certain kind of education is apparently necessary, and most schools in the West and in the East are neglecting the other side, which is far deeper and greater. But here we are trying to do both, which is something not done in other schools. We may succeed, we hope we do, but also we may not. There is no contradiction.”
J. Krishnamurti, Brockwood Park, England, 1 September 1981
I don’t think anyone who works in a K school thinks of it as ‘alternative’, though there is a tendency to club KFI schools with ‘alternative’ when parents look for schools. As you may have experienced, there is often a lot of divergent discussion on how ’mainstream’ we need to be, and what processes we must adopt.
In the K school I teach now, Pathashaala, for instance, we all use – and clean – dry toilets. We celebrate Compost Harvesting day twice a year – April 2 and October 2, wherein we harvest our manure. Teaching and non-teaching akkas and annas sit together with students to eat the same food at the same time at shared round tables, (all ‘staff’ and students sitting on the floor). We all undertake the cleaning of plates and tables, source/grow local food and incorporate millet in every meal, use solar energy and eco-friendly architecture. In agrarian models we have evolved with and for the neighbourhood, we include vermicomposting, agroforestry, home gardens for below-BPL homes, nutrition-accounting and schemes for the PHC.
We cook and eat vegetarian locally grown millet-based food (including rice) at Pathashaala (PCFL-KFI) and discuss our footprint in school fora, around many perspectives – global economics, natural resource accounting, farming and agriculture, reduction of pastures, etc. – and yes, Krishnamurti. Pathashaala has evolved millet-based menus and all residents are vegetarian for the period they are on campus. No attempt is made to brainwash anyone into continuing that way – it would not work, and we would not try it anyway.
We also have Kondattams with the Panchayat Union Schools around us, and other schools in the cities and towns close by who accept our invitation. We have had the good fortune of having tribal students from ACCORD in Gudalur also participating in the Kondattams. They are our Resource People as well. This time, we even interacted online with schools from the North-east! These Kondattams every term, are around common areas of interest. Yes, the participating students are from many castes and tribes. As I see it, we do not ‘talk’caste at Pathashaala Kondattams – we attempt to build equity in learning process through the acknowledgement, encouragement and fostering of ideas. Innovations. Lateral thinking. Courage in the face of adversity (even savarnas can and need to bring this!). But casteism is certainly discussed in many frames of learning at school.
many of their names remained mostly unknown to students
Maybe you didn’t know the names of Shrimati Akka, Srinivasulu Anna, Lakshmi Akka, Kanniamma akka…I know they are there now, though I have been away many years, and maybe many other alumni remember too! As I recollect, ”Paruppu saadam” made for the Kindergarten section was one of the most popular dishes for which long queues formed – not for caste-one-upmanship – but for taste, and I don’t know if that would need to change. As I remember it before I left, food was not heavily anything except itself, and didn’t need to be. Allergies and physical reactions to any food items were respected and limited alternatives were found which did not upset the tight schedule in the kitchen.
The School made many inroads into State Education frames, evolved Environmental Studies for the ISC, ran non-certified courses for interested The School students that linked them meaningfully to a wider world. All of this was also anchored and scaffolded in dialogue that looked at a range of contemporary issues. The teachers who taught Weaving and Pottery were known not just by their names – assemblies were anchored by them; the anna who teaches weaving anchored a project in his village as well. Maybe you didn’t find out. This is not to counter what you are saying. I am adding my experience, which does not concur with yours.
A school is not a social seminary for adult left- or right-wing politics – it is a space where the student learns about the world and about themselves in a way that is open, and mobilises them to act in their own best light. There has always been this room to learn and grow, regardless of and along with eating vegetarian food at school.
this conception of violence is no more than a brahmanical myth, functions as code for purity politics, and a hegemonic control of food-practices of dalit, bahujan, adivasi and Muslim peoples.
You talk of being a savarna brahmin. Let me explain a different understanding with one of my examples of cognitive dissonance as one:
As a savarna Brahmin of poor economic status who was born and lived for 15 years in a colony, it was with pride that my family scraped the money to put me in a reputed Catholic ‘convent ’ school in which I said Hail Mary thrice a day. It opened my mind and heart to the Psalms, to the Sermon on the Mount, and I liked the peace in the Chapel. I learnt to read English there from an exceptionally good teacher and human being, who happens to be a savarna Malayali, now retired. The subject is what I mainly teach at school. My best friend in this school was Bushra Tasneem, who stood by me through thick and thin during difficult times then. I discovered Saint Salim Chishti and made a mannath as well, at age 13 – and he has remained with me. I was and am strictly vegetarian and I have felt no need – nor was I asked – to eat meat to prove myself as Bushra’s friend. I have not felt casteist in not doing so.
The power to harm thrives on no value except divisiveness. In my observation, it feeds off the power it exercises, in savarnas and in bahujans. It cuts across all boundaries of caste, creed, gender or religion. I have never for a moment questioned that schools need to evoke sensitively the capacity for critical thinking and action – not for the politics of hate, but the resilience to find a proactive and discerning social voice, and the space for each individual to be present, to bear witness, to reflect and redress in the way that makes sense to them. This cannot happen through exploring a single identity – or a single perspective – in a diverse country like India.
Brahmins constitute 5% of India’s population today. Poor or rich, they have the iniquitous baggage of years of mainstream global education, privileged by the British as well, who made willing brahmins study law and business and accounting and administration in order to help them rule. This would need to be set right in the interests of our country’s – the world’s – present & future. Skilling, empowering agronomy and career guidance are wonderful new systemic possibilities. But I feel empowerment needs to be felt, not just structured.
Atrocities have happened in the name of caste. So, it would be reasonable, I feel, to interrogate these atrocities in any school around what that school can do – in keeping with the secular philosophies they operate from. I see that a learning school is a work-in-progress – and thank you for some good ideas about what we can further discuss at school.