Monday, July 5, 2010

The Three R's and the Inevitable Fourth

It was 1943.

I was seven. Studying in the Vettathuvila primary school in Chennithala, a village in central Travancore. I was perhaps the most brilliant in the class. I got double promotion and was now in class III. I had a knack for arithmetics and could recite the multiplication tables of even 13, 14 and 15 without battling the eyelid. But even I could not cope up with the simple problem our Headmistress Kunji Amma teacher wrote on the blackboard.

The problem was in one line.

Change Sarkar Rupees 27 panam 3, chakram 2 and kasu 11 in to British Rupees, anas, and pies.

All the little brains are working out for the next two periods on this.

Sarkar rupee is of the native state, so it should not be above British Rupee. So Sarkar Rupee is 28 chakram, British Rupee is 28 1/2 chakram, 4 chakram 1 panam, 16 kasu 1 chakram, 16 anas one British Rupee and 12 pie 1 ana.

Can you do it in one hour?

We all come out with different answers. The canes swing.

We become closer in one respect. We are united in our fear of arithmetics.

This was the scenario of all the primary schools in Travancore. it is no wonder that Travancore did not produce any outstanding mathematician or engineer or physicist of international calibre.

Bill Gates said:

A mother of a two and a half year old child initiates him to the world of letters by making him fold a crayon between his fingers and drawing two slanting lines and giving a connecting line in the middle and asking him to shout A. Neither the lines nor the figure has any connection with the sound it represents. The child’s brain cells are in overtime work to find a out why or what it is. So by the tine he learns the alphabets, he has misutilised and overutilised his brain energy and capacity which could have been useful in more creative manner.

He says the computer will simplify the process.

And new inventions will come out of the brain cells which remain fresh and receptive and hence capable of new and unpredictable inventions.

The three R s, Reading, Writing and Arithmetic, are the symbols of learning, knowledge, progress and finally wisdom. But when I write it and read and
re-read the word R s, I am amused. The gap between the R and S was shrinking every time I re-read it and now there is practically no gap and I have to use all my learning and wisdom to see that R s do not represent Rs. Rupees, the wealth.
Learn to earn wealth. Not wealth of knowledge but wealth of money.

The idea is truly un-Indian where the wise and learned, Brahmins were on the top of the social order and the really wealthy, the Vaishyas, the traders and businessmen came third, after the administrators and military, the Kshatriyas.

Bill Gates and the western trained Indian economists would have poohpoohed the idea. Think of Ambanis or Mallayyas to be below in social hierarchy to the swamis of Ramakrishna Mission or vice-chancellors of our Universities.

India led the ancient civilisations where begging was an honourable profession, and the learned, the Brahmins lived on the alms religiously given to them by the rest. The knowledge and wisdom were not to be used for wealth creation for self. It was for the benefit of the society and the beneficiary, the society should perpetuate the wisdom by meeting their bare physical needs.

Then it became such a force that Buddhism insists that a real Buddhist monk has to live on alms alone and the begging bowl has become the most important part of his robe.

Thus the three R s were in olden times never connected to the Rs, the rupees.
Of course in those days the three R s were not considered necessary at all for all and sundry. The education was the prerogative of the highest, the Brahmins.
In Kerala, prior to sixth and seventh centuries the three R s were never a part of the society and nobody felt any need for it. Even arithmetics was not necessary in their daily lives.

The basic use of arithmetics in a society is in respect of measurement of space, time, weight and price. In those days the distance was easily connected to Vilipadakale, the distance upto which your shout can be heard and Nazhika, the distance you can travel when your shadow changes by a Charn, the length of your open palm. Measurement of weight, no problem. Thalachumad, the weight your head can hold. And money. There was no middleman price for any product in the barter transactions and when by any chance a few coins, mainly gold, are received from some Arab or north Indian traders, the coin was a collector’s item or turned into jewellery. The coins as such are diligently buried generally deep below nalukattu, safe centre place of the dwelling. It becomes the nidhi, treasure for future generations.

So there was no need of reading, writing or arithmetic.

Then came the Budhhists combining Palli and Pallikoodam , the temple and school combined. They also had healthcare as part of the system. The remnants of it can still be felt at the Budhhapalli turned temples in the coastal belt, at Kodungalloor, Cherthala, Thiruvizha, Maruthorvattom, Thakazhi etc.

The Namboodiris just changed the scenario, They came in hordes and captured the entire Kerala in a manner unique in World history. They didn’t spill a drop of blood, but conquered the entire society physically and mentally with tonguelashing Sanskrit words and hymns and a laborious way of writing in user unfriendly palm leaves using Narayam, an iron tool more useful in deadly combats.

It took many centuries for Keralites to get a script of their own and they got their first schools with traditional teacher, the Nilthezhuthasan in every village. The hereditary teacher started teaching the children the three R ‘s in the well spread white sand collected and kept for this purpose. Promotion to use of palm leaf came in the advanced courses only.

The most important feature of this development was that the Kerala society got one of the unique custom found nowhere else in the world.

Ezhuthiniruth. Initiation of the child into the world of letters.

Of course the three R's are still a part of us and the fourth now controls the first three. But a little remembrance, nostalgia, gives us something to think of.


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