Sunday, 9 September 2012

Things I Wish I'd Known

4 years ago, I embarked on a career about which I had no clue. I didn’t know this at the time, of course. I thought teaching English was about cosy classrooms and endless conversations about poetry with the only aim being to enthuse students. I was wrong and right. Teaching is wonderful, but like many many other jobs, it’s also full of bureaucracy, meetings and pressure. I wish someone had told me this before I’d started, to shake me out of my naïveté.

So if you’re beginning a PGCE this September and are about as clued-up as I was, this one’s for you!
Things I wish I’d known…

…about the training process

When you apply for a PGCE, you’re asked to observe in schools as part of the process. This requirement exists for a reason, so do as much observation as possible as it will give you an insight into what modern teaching looks like. You’ll pick up the jargon that will impress your interviewer when you talk about the difficulty of getting plenaries right, or when you discuss the use of SIMs. Be as hands-on as possible and use this time in school to learn how to use IWBs or the VLE etc as this will give you a head start when it comes to your school placements.

As a PGCE student, I walked around with a perpetual fear of failure. I was convinced that I would be busted at any moment for the lesson plans I hadn’t written yet or the marking that my year 9s were still waiting for. This, I learned from many others, is normal and can linger beyond your training year. Truth is, there are not enough hours in the day to complete all of the tasks that go with doing a good job, but somehow you and your classes will and do manage with however much preparation and work you have put in.

When you’re training you’re both a student attached to a University as well as a teaching professional in a school. Looking back, I’d say don’t build up the importance of the university/academic side of the training too much. So many PGCE students think that when their University mentor comes to their school to observe, it’s ‘make or break’ time. It really isn’t – the proof of your success or failure is in how well you’ve developed and maintained your work and relationship with your classes during your placement and what your placement mentor says about your progress. If anything, it’s the colleagues rather than your lecturer that you need to impress…start with buying them biscuits, that helps. Even if your big observation doesn’t go well, or your placement for that matter, as long as you’re showing yourself to be able to take on feedback and understand how to improve, you’ll be fine, and you’ll be supported.

The thing about teaching is that you can’t learn about how it’s done through reading, theorising or attending lectures alone. It takes practice and continual review of your techniques throughout your career. It wasn’t until the end of my NQT year that I realised that I was finally getting the hang of teaching. I look back at some of my earliest lesson plans now and laugh – I really didn’t have a clue, and I thank the generous teenage souls who sat through my lessons so patiently. The only memorable piece of theory that I have ever used from my PGCE year is Bloom’s Taxonomy. I’m not saying that academic theory isn’t useful, but for me it only began to make sense once I was confident in my practice and able to understand how it’s applied. So rather than using the ideas put forward in the lecture hall, most of the ideas that have informed my teaching techniques have come from colleagues feeding back after attending conferences and training days.

…about marking

Marking kills me.

It takes me ages and seems to haunt my leisure time and my dreams.

Unless you are going to avoid setting long writing tasks (which you can get away with to some extent), you need to make it meaningful and efficient. Try to do it as you get it, or keep a schedule of which year group’s work you’ll mark at which point in the week so that your students are clear (and won’t moan) and so that you’re never overloaded at any point in the week…if you can do either of these, you’re better than me.

Marking can be really interesting as a way of keeping track of the skills that your students are developing. Marking formatively through a unit means that each pupil builds up a number of ‘what worked wells’ and ‘even better ifs’ through the term and regular marking means that you’ll often see where they’re starting to change how they work and where they’re taking on your feedback. If you keep a record of the advice you have given each student (using codes can help to make this efficient), you can also pull up students who aren’t responding to your feedback.

Then there’s those wonder concepts…peer and self assessment. Make these your best friends if you want to reduce your marking time. They’re not just convenient for you, but really effective at boosting learning skills. They make pupils much more independent and reflective as learners as they’re being empowered with knowing how the criteria upon which they will be judged works. It can take time to train pupils to get peer and self assessment right, but it’s worth investing in as ultimately, they’re the ones who will be sitting the exam, they need to know how to play the game.

…about behaviour

My first placement as a PGCE student was a bit of a disaster, partly because as I said before, I didn’t know what I was doing, but also because my mentor encouraged shouting as a behaviour management tool. She adopted the persona of the drill sergeant and would give out detentions for the most insignificant of reasons. It worked for her. Her students would leave her lessons trembling and subdued, but insofar as the execution of the lesson, it worked for her.

Shouting and being mean definitely doesn’t suit me, or work for me. For a start, it’s energy consuming and puts you in a bad mood. It can also get students’ backs up and then you have them and their friends working against you for the rest of the lesson, if not the rest of term. For me, it’s just more stress than it’s worth. More dignified than a shouting match with the whole class watching is ignoring an ill-behaved pupil (I said more dignified, not more polite) and then having a quiet word soon afterwards about what’s going on. You can invite pupils to be really honest and to reflect on why they’re not working when you talk to them individually and they do tend to recognise that they’re not on track and they do know how to improve the situation. They also tend to appreciate being listened to in this way.

Whether you decide to be the strict and shout-ey teacher or the firm and reasonable type, firsts are important when it comes to behaviour. The first lesson and the first week with a class need to go smoothly and you need to establish your rules and expectations in the first meeting.  The first time you’re tested on your rules (yes, they’ll test you) is also important as your students will judge you based on your reaction, so you can’t afford to let it slip. Get senior staff or parents involved if the act of defiance calls for it. Similarly, the first 5 minutes of a lesson are also crucial as they determine how the rest of the hour will go. Insisting on silence for the first 5 minutes while you take the register and while they get on with a task you’ve already put on the board works well. Meeting them at the door and allowing pupils in only once their uniforms are in order is another good way to stamp your authority.

One of the biggest shocks to me when I started teaching was that some pupils didn’t want to learn. They needed motivating. Some even needed me to supply a biro so they could do the work. They couldn’t see the benefit of being in my carefully planned lesson! A bit of empathy is useful here and helps maintain a level of patience for the young people you’re working with. Your training will tell you that some students have much bigger issues in their lives, much more urgent than the need to understand how to use apostrophes etc. Sometimes a pupil might be having a bad day, or might be distracted by any number of things: growing pains, a love interest or the fact that the teacher went on a shouting rampage in the previous lesson. Whatever’s fuelling their distraction or apathy, it’s down to teachers to lure them back. Because of this, I’ve seen all sorts of incentives and treats dangled under pupils’ noses and you have to work out what you’ll offer, whether it’s a pizza party, a positive phone call home, smileys, an encouraging word in the ear, doughnuts, chocolate etc. Rewarding effort and achievement and refusing to give time to poor behaviour is not just effective as a behaviour management strategy, but also makes for a more comfortable experience for everyone. Students feel encouraged this way and you get to keep your sense of humour.

…about Secondary English

It’s easy to get caught up with lesson preparation, but wherever possible, get them to do the work. This isn’t just about getting pupils to hand out and collect in books, it goes much further. Rather than putting together a list of key quotations in a novel yourself for example, get your students to come up with them. They can then go on to analyse them, annotate them, whatever. This means not just less work for you, but it makes the text and revision more meaningful for them.

When planning a lesson always make sure that the majority of the activity is done by the students and again that you’re getting them to do the work. It’s also a good idea to get a variety of activities in, aim for some speaking, some listening, some reading and some writing for each pupil.

Planning all-singing, all-dancing lessons for every teaching period is tough and realistically is only done when Ofsted come knocking. Aim for 1 flashy lesson per year group a week – this is still quite a fair bit of quality planning – the rest of the week’s lessons can feed into or develop the theme. You’ll be using the module and lesson plans again next year so you can develop them as you go along. You didn’t hear that from me…

If you’ve read this far…I hope I haven’t put you off! This post is as much about me giving myself advice retrospectively as it is about sharing my experiences with others. If you are embarking on a PGCE…all the best! J

Friday, 3 August 2012

Be still, my beating leftie heart...

What springs to mind when you think of the British flag?

The armed forces? Roses? The Queen? The NF with its assertion that ‘there ain’t no black in the union jack’? Cucumber sandwiches? Bad teeth? War heroes?

Whatever you might associate with it, the union jack is everywhere right now. Given the royal wedding last year, the Queen’s jubilee and the London Olympics, it’s no wonder that union flags, British products and branding that evokes the ‘blitz spirit’ have been more in demand in recent months than ever. Personally, I’m indifferent to all the ‘Keep Calm’ paraphernalia about but it seems that there’s nothing like an Olympic opening ceremony dreamed up by Danny Boyle on the other hand to serve as a reminder of everything that Britain has got going for it.

At the risk of sounding jingoistic (and yes, I really do have to insert some form of apologetic disclaimer: I’m British and it’s not the done thing to be patriotic) for me, last week’s Olympic opening ceremony was an absolute ode to Britishness, a reminder of the British history and values that we have to be proud of and it was a celebration of this host nation, put on by and for the British people.

Here’s what I admired…

The boldness

I don’t mean the glitz here…yes, there was lots of it, with fireworks and famous faces popping up at all the right points (although this high profile glamour seemed to be counterbalanced by those low budget video clips every now and again). What I mean by boldness is the daring, the thoughtfulness and meaning behind so many of the details and the choices made. The willingness to take a risk. The refusal to try to tell a story completely and chronologically. The unashamed British quirkiness of the whole thing.

I think we have to accept, folks, that this was no rival to Beijing’s massively polished, perfectly choreographed opening ceremony 4 years ago. But unlike the Chinese performance, London wasn’t seeking outside approval, to achieve perfect synchronicity or to have a global appeal. Just like the city itself, London’s opening ceremony was at times slightly rough around the edges and down to earth, but it was also vibrant, celebratory and imaginative. This ceremony might not have felt world class the whole time, but at least it had raw personality, at least it had the confidence to go beyond the need to please others.

The heritage

Having studied English at university, I’m convinced that literature is one of Britain’s best exports and if you don't believe me, the British Library’s current exhibition Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands provides fascinating and beautiful evidence for this. It was great to see Tolkein referenced in the ceremony, both in the pastoral, romanticised landscape at the start as well as in the forging of the Olympic rings as the set changed to depict Blake’s ‘dark satanic mills’.

It was also a treat to see Kenneth Branagh as a starry-eyed Isambard Kingdom Brunel during the ceremony, with Caliban’s words in his mouth. Although his speech and role were at odds with each other, the conflation of these multiple ideas within him was clever and bold.

In addition to celebrating literature, British heritage was marked in other ways. Care was taken to acknowledge the pioneers in the suffragette movement and in the Windrush generation as the rise of the working class was tracked, which makes sense given the celebration of struggles and achievements in British history within the ceremony. And of course, who could forget, the biggest point of British pride, the NHS. It might be taken for granted, maligned, diminishing and currently under threat, but at least it exists in British history. The social conscience and the altruistic spirit the Beveridge report and all the changes it brought about in society deserve to be celebrated.

The Londoners who made it happen

How many other countries are there that can blag an opening ceremony with over 7,000 volunteers performing? Call me cheesy, but again, this is Britain… you can only imagine the drive, the passion, the energy and the pride of so many local people that led them to commit their time and effort to putting on such a show. Their role in the ceremony tells of a nation of co-operation, tolerance, and diversity.

The night also wouldn’t have been what it was without the contribution and celebration of modern multicultural London. Modern and local British talent was showcased through Signature, Wimbledon’s Akram Khan and Bow’s Dizzee Rascal. I wonder if Jeremy Paxman would still want clarification as to ‘Mr Rascal’s’ nationality now…

The inspiration

Thoughtfully designed and beautifully executed, the lighting of the torch was a hugely inspirational and figurative act. This was another genius metaphor and conflation of many images: values of equality and co-operation represented with each nation’s bronze petal along with the commitment to ‘inspire a generation’ with the 7 future athletes as the final torch-bearers.

The Olympic Games represent so much more than ‘just’ sport or games. I felt privileged to have taught about the Olympic values at school recently, because they’re such admirable and important principles in and of themselves. These values and the integrity in the spirit of the games was echoed for me during the most symbolic and moving moment of the evening: the bearing of the Olympic flag by champions of human rights. Looking actually divine in white and each with an incredible story to tell, the flag bearers represented the highest values of the Olympics. If the ambition and demands that these values place upon humanity are what made China’s hosting of the games uncomfortable and controversial, it’s the optimism and the diversity in Britain that allowed them to sit so well in London.

There’s something for us all to aspire to when it comes to the spirit of the games, but if we’re talking about inspiration, who could forget the athletes! I’ll always remember the opening ceremony in Beijing in 2008 because my good friend Hafsah sent me a message during it to say ‘Isn’t humanity beautiful!?’ So apt, considering that Olympic athletes work for years with absolute discipline, commitment and courage to hone their skills and to push their own limits in order to demonstrate to the rest of us what this human body is capable of. Physically, they are the elite of the world and the mental resilience and the strength of character that it takes to strive constantly to develop and grow is something that we can all learn from.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

'Memories mean more to me than dresses'.

While teaching a weekly grammar lesson to my hilarious group of year 8s recently, I got into a discussion with the class about forms of writing, and about diaries in particular. A quick show of hands revealed that less than a third of the class has or would consider keeping a diary. One girl even went so far as to comment that diaries are old fashioned now. She informed me that calling, texting, tumblr, facebook, twitter – and the list goes on – are the modern replacements. Self expression? Teenagers have got it covered, apparently.

What this student said bothered me. It wasn’t just that she had called out, which is completely against Mrs Kaur’s class rules. Actually, it was her dismissive tone. The lack of awareness and the unwitting lack of respect she was demonstrating for the power of the simple act of writing out one’s innermost thoughts and feelings. To be fair, we discussed this further as a class and the students were able to tease out the importance of diary writing and to tell me a bit more about how it’s done nowadays.
The whole experience made me reflect though, on my own views which are obviously stronger than I realised. As a young girl and as a teenager, I kept a diary which my sisters bought for me. Writing regularly was encouraged by the primary school I attended, which I can now recognise was an amazing place. But I was also inspired by another young writer – Anne Frank. Her story has always been very familiar (again, thanks to my primary school) and at the forefront of my mind: a story that I feel has shaped me. I can remember feeling carsick from reading a copy of her diary whilst out in the car with my parents as a teenager, and being told to look up from the book in my lap and to take a break. I went on to study Holocaust Literature as part of my MA which exposed me to many other testimonies. I was also lucky enough to visit the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam recently, which was a very meaningful experience.
The Anne Frank House calls itself ‘a museum with a story’, which given that it is the site of the secret annexe where Fritz Pfeffer and the Frank and van Pels families were in hiding, is apt. It allows visitors to witness and observe the physical details of the lives of these families which we become privy to in Anne’s diary. It’s also something of a living monument, bearing witness to the struggles and the bravery of the eight Jews who hid inside.
What struck me about the experience of visiting the museum was learning of Otto Frank’s thoughts about Anne’s writing. After learning of her death, Otto Frank read his daughter’s diary and also discovered that she had been working to redraft it as a novel. Learning of the depth of his daughter’s emotions and inner life through her writing, Otto Frank concluded that ‘most parents don’t know really, their children’. The thoughtfulness and the quality of Anne’s thoughts really are remarkable and given her fate, make visiting the house and reading the diary both sad and enriching experiences.
As the youngest daughter in a family which had moved from Frankfurt to Amsterdam and with hopes to move to America in order to the escape the persecution of Jews, Anne Frank would have been under no illusions as to the danger that her family faced. I feel that there is a great sense of poignancy in Anne’s ability to see beauty during her life in hiding, despite the extreme stress and fear that all the individuals involved in the secret would have been under. Anne’s inner life flourished as expressed through her writing, despite the darkness and threat around her and despite the restrictions placed upon her. She still had the courage to imagine, to dream and to think for herself, throwing herself into the intimate act of writing and expressing her innermost thoughts and feelings. The museum reconstructs how she immersed herself in her own interests, plastering her walls at first with pictures of film stars. As the years went by and Anne’s interest in art and history grew, the likes of Greta Garbo and Ginger Rogers had to compete for space on her wall with Da Vinci and Rembrandt. Other incidental and domestic features in the house offer glimpses of stoicism, such as the marking of growth lines for Margot and Anne Frank, charting their changes in height. In 1943, Anne wrote ‘I long to ride a bike, dance, whistle, look at the world, feel young and know that I’m free’. She is also said to have drawn inspiration from the chestnut tree outside the secret annexe, commenting on her view of it from Peter van Pels’ room in 1944: ‘The two of us looked out at the blue sky, the bare chestnut tree glistening with dew, the seagulls and other birds glinting with silver as they swooped through the air’. Her enduring ability to admire nature and to dream of freedom under such conditions represents a tragic resilience to me and her lack of contempt for the persecutors of Jews speaks of a generous soul.
We can now only wonder what kind of a woman and a writer Anne Frank would have become. However thanks to her avid diary writing, her legacy endures. There’s something about stories of individual courage and spirit which inspire and evoke our sympathy. Somehow I think we need individual examples like this one in order to understand the experiences of others and the events of history as a whole. Of course, countless other persecuted Jews went into hiding and it’s possible to learn about Corrie Ten Boom for example, and to visit the house in Haarlem where she harboured hundreds of Jews. However for me, Anne Frank’s work is enduring. Her struggles as documented in her diary and those of the seven others in hiding with her represent the struggles of all who suffered in the Holocaust. The museum does an impressive and admirable job of preserving her memory and all that she represents with love and care. The Anne Frank House also works to spread awareness and understanding and to fight prejudice and extremism. There’s an interactive forum at the end of the tour which presents visitors with modern day examples of discrimination, from Holocaust denial on social networks to the rights of the EDL to express its opinions. It’s encouraging to know that lessons can be learned from such tragic events and that the facts of Anne Frank’s life are sparking debate about contemporary issues.
At the end of the visit to the house, I thought about what Anne Frank means to me, this remarkable, spirited and thoughtful young girl whose diary I once read. To me, Anne Frank represents the beauty of self expression which has the courage to flourish under the most fearful of circumstances. She is a reminder that I must remember the lessons that history teaches us and to have empathy in order to understand. Anne Frank represents the power of the written word and of humanity to endure and to transcend.

‘We cannot change what happened anymore. The only thing we can do is to learn from the past and to realize what discrimination and persecution of innocent people means. I believe that it’s everyone’s responsibility to fight prejudice’.  Otto Frank, 1970

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Humble at the Southbank

A toyer of words, a champion of self expression and an artist who’s passionate about the creative process: as the son of immigrants, Humble the Poet is all about the courage, the creativity and the departure from comfort zones.

As part of the Southbank’s Alchemy Festival this year, Humble graced the stage of the Purcell Room while also being pretty frank at the start of the evening and admitting that at one time he’d been reluctant to perform in ‘auditoriums’. So began an evening in which he demonstrated this commitment to reaching out and communicating no matter what the context or venue, and a revelry in experimenting and trying new things that challenge him. Not only that, he came equipped with his own gear – how about that, then? Who needs equipment provided by the Royal Festival Hall when you’ve brought in your own Mac, phone and DJ-ing skills, right? He provided asides and entertainment for the audience while setting up, asking if his mama (mum’s brother) had shown up yet (he never did, in the end). He was even his own PR, pleading with the bloggers in the crowd to ‘be nice’ in their write-ups. I think it’s fair to say that the Purcell Room hasn’t seen someone like him on stage in a while.
In performance, Humble the Poet is everything you could hope for in an artist. On stage the primary school teacher in him comes out. He is simply himself, his delivery unscripted and void of an agenda beyond that of sharing and expressing himself. If anything, his delivery is simply a conversation with the audience. It flows organically, interspersed with his laughter, swearing and ideas as they come to him for what to do or to share next. This spontaneous choice of content, based upon his whim and the preferences of the audience works both to showcase his creative playfulness as well as to make the audience feel like his guinea pigs. Indeed, he sings for the crowd, testing out what they think of his singing voice. He rehearses his catwalk rap for an upcoming show and is brutally honest about how he’s been picked to model just for the shock factor. The people in the crowd may well have paid to see Humble do his thing, but he’s savvy enough to make the most of the opportunity to try out new things on a willing audience. He makes it clear that he takes serious inspiration for how to go about being an artist from the immigrants around him and in his family who have made themselves vulnerable for the sake of finding opportunities and who like him, took risks in the unknown: for this is how newness comes about.
Humble’s interest in the other, the immigrant and bearing witness comes to the fore when he talks about hip hop. For Humble the Poet, hip hop isn’t just another music form, it’s an outlet for communities who need to express their otherwise dismissed experiences. It’s resourceful, making something out of nothing: scratching, mixing and reusing old records and requiring only a beat. It’s a medium in which taboo content can be tested and explored. It’s its own language and one that voices stories of the disenfranchised: it’s an enabling force, the voice for the voiceless.
Humble traces for the audience his journey from spoken word and performance poetry through to hip hop. He celebrates his successes with us along with being honest about his failures, and this is his very appeal: he’s not mystical about the creative process. He is unassuming and has nothing to lose by sharing what he’s learned. If anything, he seems more interested in learning from times when things didn’t go so well - because knowing what’s needed is what spurns growth. Bumping into him in the Southbank Alchemy Market before the show, Humble seems at ease in his new environment but also slightly baffled at the fact that he’s been invited to perform. He’s so immersed in his own projects and in expressing his own creativity, he seems oblivious to his own appeal. He is, Humble indeed.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Le Simb de Saint Louis

Travelling can be overwhelming and exhausting. It can also reward with experiences that are stranger than fiction, if only for a moment. Travelling can elicit questions that may otherwise never even have occurred to us.

Afternoons in Saint Louis are a languid affair: with stomachs packed tightly with theiboudienne and the heat making movement too much to bear, mothers sit in their cotton boubous on plastic chairs on their open porches, brewing tea or potent bissap over mobile cookers by their feet, leaning down to prod occasionally and exposing many a heaving cleavage in the process.
For a traveller with places to go despite the punishing time of day, I might be heckled and called a ‘toubab’ or (more favourably,) beckoned for conversation by one of these mamas though the hissing call. It’s directed with precision, successfully turning the head of the intended recipient every time, even in a busy market or from the opposite side of Pont Faiderbhe.
On this particular day though, nobody could have distracted me. I’d heard a sabar drum from a distance and I only needed to turn a corner to reach the source. The rhythm was like a livid child: incessant, stubborn and unreasonably shrill. I turned the corner. The neighbourhood’s kids formed a wall with their backs to me, a block away. Then I saw it. What they were all crowding around. He rose in front of them, surreally tall, blonde mane alarming against his black skin and his painted red and yellow face. His dreadfully sculpted body was dressed with feathers and animal hide. His eyes flashed as he moved in a fearful choreography. He lifted his arm and issued a guttural roar over the bursting drum beat. As he struck at the children they pulsed away, screaming and running in my direction now like a shoal of fish. At once terrified and mesmerised by what I saw, I was fixed to the spot.
I watched as the children slowed down, laughed in delight and headed back towards him. ‘C’est le simb’ a patient voice at my side uttered. He was a baker, he’d seen my alarm. I nodded, listening quietly, grateful for his words of explanation and reassurance until an excitable girl in a stained dress hauled me in, hysterical at the prospect of a toubab joining the circus.

Saturday, 31 March 2012

Spring Clean

You won’t find it on the menu of any self respecting Indian restaurant and while it’s disparaged as food fit only for the convalescent, it also happens to be what I’ve been eating exclusively for the last 40 consecutive days: kitcheri.

That’s right, since late February (right after a tea- and pastry-fuelled visit to Lisbon) I’ve been on the mung bean and rice monodiet. Coinciding partly with Lent and as part of my training to be a Kundalini Yoga teacher, it’s been my own personal spring clean. Kitchari is mushy and pre-digested making it easy for the digestive system to process. Eating it for a number of days consecutively gives the body a break from trying constantly to digest processed food, sugar, caffeine etc and gives it a chance to work on other parts of you. It also contains all the vitamins, carbs and protein you could ask for.
All of this means that I’ve eaten nothing but kitcheri for 40 days. It’s been my breakfast, lunch, dinner and all the naughty snacks in between…you don’t go hungry on this diet: believe, a pot of it goes a long way. Also known to some as baby food, mung beans and rice, mush, vegetable kedgeree and ‘that gluey curry thing’, whatever you call it I’m now a master at making it, having made some interesting additions to the standard mix of moongi dhal, rice, haldi and turka (fried onions, garlic and ginger) along the way. First I tried to give it a traffic light theme, adding red, yellow and green peppers (this I later avoided: they left an aftertaste that lasted hours). Then I tried it without salt, substituting it with tamari and paprika instead (better than it sounds). When I started to miss avocado, I threw some in (it was terrible. My regard for avocado has definitely diminished). When I became desperate to have something to chew, I added tofu (this felt like cheating but I decided that it wasn’t). Broccoli featured most days, because broccoli I can’t live without. I’ve heard of people adding in chocolate and mango: as long as it’s all cooked in one pot and as long as it’s cooked until mushy, it’s all allowed (so say liberal yogis).
They say that the first 3 days are the toughest and that was true for me. I had a headache threatening for the whole time and an awful coming-down-with-something taste in the back of my throat. I felt trapped by the restricted choice and mildly embarrassed to be the odd one out at the dinner table. That must have been when the detoxing was at its most intense as after those initial days, I actually felt locked into the diet, steady and secure. After that, I was happy to sit with friends in restaurants, to order nothing and just to talk while they ate. I was irritated by those that took pity on me, asserting that it was a choice I’d made. The magic was happening. Yes, there were challenges throughout. What did I do when I was out all day? Tupperware became my best friend and my microwave tracking skills became fine-tuned. What about when I felt like giving up? I reminded myself that it was all in the name of cleansing and wouldn’t last forever! What about when I craved food that wasn’t kitcheri? Why, I sniffed it, of course! And if it wasn’t available to be sniffed, I looked up recipes, wiped away the drool and saved them for later. Curiously, I started thinking about meat, which I haven’t eaten or desired to eat in 8 years. On those occasions I didn’t seek out any meat to smell and I don’t intend on going back to it but it is fascinating how the memory of food lingers in the system.
It wasn’t all sniffing and cravings though. The amount of energy I had is unprecedented. Lie-ins became unnecessary and rather than leaving me frazzled, going to work became just one element of a full and varied day. I have lost over a stone, an unanticipated but welcome kitcheri consequence. If we can talk about elimination for a moment, let me tell you, it becomes an absolute PLEASURE.
But what I have learned through this monodiet goes way beyond toilet business. What I have learned is that life is so much simpler when you’re not daydreaming about which biscuit to have with your next cup of tea. That’s if you’re anything like I was. My relationship to food has been exposed and reviewed. I was a tea and sugar addict (although I never took sugar in my tea) with no real grasp of the fact that the things one eats affect the way that one feels. In a way, it’s no wonder when sugar is so ubiquitous: over the course of my 40 days for example, I collected an impressive amount of sweets and chocolate that were given to me by colleagues and friends just on a day to day basis. At first, I expected that I’d be gorging on them at the strike of midnight on day 40. Then I was offered a generous alternative, a trip to the chippie to mark the end of the diet instead. Having spent this time eating such clean food, right now I don’t think I’d be able to stomach either option, and part of me feels privileged to be sensitised enough to reject processed food.
To you kitcheri, I say thank you for bringing me this awareness. I hail and honour you as my wonderfood. Although I might be off the monodiet now, I’ll never forget you, and I’ll never let you go.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

The maid, the single lady and the courtesan.

Flawless it isn’t, but Winterbottom’s Trishna is a reminder of the stigma and the weight of shame that some women still carry today.

As Riz Ahmed (playing Jay Singh) puts it to Frieda Pinto in Trishna, “The Kama Sutra says a man can make love to three types of woman: the maid, the single lady or the courtesan. Which one are you?” Through his words, not only does he undermine her role in their relationship and ensnare Trishna yet again in his own web of carnal pleasure, his words also betray the need in society to categorise women, to give them set roles, to make them knowable and therefore easier to subjugate. Like Tess before her, Trishna represents the fall of the pure woman. Winterbottom has done a fine job of illuminating the inflated importance of the innocence and honour of women by transporting Hardy’s 1891 novel to modern day, rural India.
Pinto makes an ideal Trishna - doe-eyed and (dare I say it?) gangly in a kameez, Pinto is able to pull off the look of the village girl. The simplicity and youthfulness of her beauty mirrors the naïveté of the character as well as allowing Trishna to move with ease between Mumbai and the rural life with which she is more comfortable. The first time Ahmed’s character Jay gazes upon Trishna is when she is at the Mandir with her younger siblings and of course, it’s Jay who ends up prising her away from the familiarity of village life, her young and dependent siblings, her family, the morals they have given her and ultimately, her innocence and honour.
As a conflation of Angel and Alec from Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Jay’s British Asian character is equivocal. At the start of the film, he takes pity on Trishna as well as a liking to her: clearly an interesting mix of feelings which see him taking on both a benevolent and a colonial approach in his dealings with Trishna. Offering her a job when her family is in need, he moves her into his hotel, educates her and exposes her to more of India than she would otherwise have seen. The irreconcilability of their cultural differences however is highlighted when Trishna flees in shame and confusion after Jay seduces her whereas he expresses that he would have been happy for them to remain lovers in secret.
The tragedy of the story comes from the force with which the loss of Trishna’s innocence impacts her life. Once she finds out that she is pregnant, Trishna’s family arrange an efficient abortion and with a distinct lack of emotion, suggest that she moves in with a distant relative. If anything, the subtlest reaction in the family could possibly be the most disturbing, as Trishna’s father is depicted gazing at his fallen daughter with some interest once he finds out that she is no longer pure and naïve. All seems well once Jay finds Trishna, tells her she shouldn’t have run away, and whisks her to the beaches and acting schools of Mumbai, at which point in the film the balmy sounds of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan are swapped for pop and Bollywood music. Despite the opportunities and novelties that city life brings, Trishna’s fallen status follows her and continues to thwart her happiness. When Jay eventually finds out from Trishna about the abortion of their baby and therefore her ability to keep secrets, the appeal of her naïve and innocent charm is lost to him and we witness his disintegration from Angel to Alec. Despite his own infidelities and his more liberal cultural background, Jay is unable to maintain his respect for the tainted Trishna, brutally making her a worker in his Rajasthan hotel again and helping himself to her body in the most humiliating terms. What makes his exploitation of her all the more bitter is that too trustingly, she runs away from her relatives to be with Jay and is left without a support system, socially and geographically isolated.

Although some might find Trishna’s inability to assert herself early on in the film deeply frustrating, it’s clear that in many ways, Trishna serves as a symbol for the fate of many women. It’s important for Trishna to remain passive for the duration of others’ judgement of her to reinforce the backbone of the film. Her treatment at the hands of her family and Jay emphasises the fact that in some cultures, moral standards for women are completely untenable, whilst those for men are unambitious to say the least. As a nod to Hardy, Trishna is often seen with a red chunni on her head, ironic since culturally the veil normally serves as a symbol of protected and upheld honour. Like Tess, the association with the colour marks Trishna out as a liminal woman: a marked woman to whom extraordinary, shameful things will happen and who also has a source of extraordinary resilience.
The final montage of the film sees Trishna despairing in the abyss, juxtaposed with her young sister chanting morning prayers at school. While Winterbottom fails to build up the sense of Trishna’s despair which leads to her final major act in the film, the mirroring of the two sisters is poignant nonetheless. It’s no coincidence that there is a ‘Save the Girl Child’ poster visible in the hospital room when Trishna’s termination is taking place: the audience is left to ponder the fate of Trishna’s younger sister given Trishna’s legacy. While the UK may have overcome the extremity of the gender biases that Hardy presented in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, it’s clear that there is still work to be done elsewhere. Winterbottom’s work isn’t perfect, but it’s certainly a noble attempt at representing the female condition.