Sumitra Pant, 39, and her husband, Mukesh, are computer professionals based in Delhi, with two school going children. Sumitra's friend recently sent her a set of three small books from Chennai, titled `What Does Fear Do to You?', `What Is It to Care?' and `What Does Freedom Mean?'.
Sumitra read the book `What Does Fear Do To You?' together with her son Gautam, 12, who was happy to take a break from his boring textbooks. Several passages in the book appealed to him. He was particularly struck by one passage and mulled over it for days: "...If you are not free of fear, you will live the rest of your life in darkness. You may have a nice house with electric lights, you may be married to a good husband or a sympathetic wife, but if you have fear in any form, you will always live in darkness. So it is very important to find out how to be free of fear. To be free of fear, you must first know that you are frightened. And secondly, you must not run away from it; you must not escape from fear, but look at it...."
As Sumitra and Gautam chatted, he expressed his fear of exams, of failure and more than anything else, of being labeled. Reading together helped open space for dialogue between the child and parent. Sumitra sympathized with Gautam's fears, but pointed out that there are multiple kinds of abilities and intelligences: Nobody excels in everything; Gautam need not be afraid of doing badly in some areas - he had immense potential in other areas like creativity, art, music; Fear could stunt his ability to grow freely in his own natural directions.
Later, Sumitra read the book once again on her own. She confronted the fact of her own fears: She herself wanted both her children to be high achievers, and felt scared at the thought of her friends' children scoring higher marks.
She discussed these issues with Mukesh. Their son, Gautam, was brilliant in music, but that didn't count in the Board exams! His lack of interest in mathematics and science seemed to dominate their lives. They had been pushing him to perform, sending him to daily tuitions and creating a tremendous pressure that weighed heavily on the child.
They realized that as parents, their role was to reassure Gautam. Sumitra read out a passage that had really made her sit up and think: "One of the causes of fear is comparison. Teachers must understand this. They compare children through marks and grades, so the one with less begins to envy the one with more marks... Comparison breeds envy, jealousy; and jealousy is the beginning of fear."
Both Mukesh and Sumitra often compared Gautam with his sister, Amba. Amba, 13, was a high academic achiever. They realized that in fact they had been transmitting their own fears to their son - creating an unhealthy dynamic that could stunt his growth. They decided to reorient their approach, focusing on Gautam's many wonderful qualities rather than berating him for something he wasn't so good at.
These small books, focusing on deeper human concerns in a simple way, are part of a series called `Krishnamurti For The Young'. Says educationist Ahalya Chari, 83, who has conceived the series: "These books represent an alternative approach to the communication of values. Rather than teach values through concepts, we want children to learn by observing their own selves. When they observe the facts - how their emotions work, what are their inner motivations - they begin to understand themselves better."
This approach runs through all the works of the philosopher J Krishnamurti (1895-1986). The three slim books are composed of carefully selected excerpts from his talks, writings and conversations with schoolchildren in Rajghat Besant School (Varanasi) and Rishi Valley School (Andhra Pradesh).
Completely opposed to the readymade answers given by most adults, he would stimulate children's own abilities to think and observe: "He often said you can learn much more from looking at life around you than from books. He wanted you to question everything, find out and learn for yourself directly and not depend on others. That way you can learn about your feelings, your fears and anxieties, your hopes and joys, and about all that goes on inside you...Would you not like to find out what you love to do most so that what you do later as you grow up gives you a lot of joy?" (Introduction to the series).
Unfortunately, these concerns are seldom even touched upon in most schools today. Contemporary education is based on rote learning, tests and grading that assesses just one kind of intelligence. Standard assembly line products emerge through this schooling - young adults scared of introspection, unable to confront their own emotions and issues, determined to participate in cut-throat competition and succeed in the rat race. They neither feel free to question the status quo, nor do they - after a while - even care to do so. They flow along with the current - with no concern for the murky undercurrents.
Schools today teach about the external world, neglecting the inner one. We are in danger of becoming hollow one-dimensional human beings, caught up in a competitive status-oriented whirl of activities. Exhausted, we fill our leisure time with television, idle chatter and borrowed opinions.
In such a scenario, Krishnamurti's words come like a breath of fresh air, quietly awakening dormant feelings, reminding us that there are other possibilities: "You cannot find out about yourself if you are always talking, going about with your friends, with half a dozen people. Sit under a tree quietly by yourself.... By being with yourself, sitting quietly under a tree, you begin to understand the workings of your own mind and that is as important as going to class."
Not only children and adolescents, but also teachers and parents are likely to benefit from reading these books that present another way of approaching life and learning. Teachers could use the books as reflective reading in the classroom and follow up with stimulating exercises, discussion and introspective writing. Being neither fiction nor textbooks, the books are quite unlike anything most children are familiar with. Moreover, they are well produced, rich in beautifully written anecdotes, stories and reflections.
(`What Does Fear Do To You?', `What Is It To Care?', `What Does Freedom Mean?' by J Krishnamurti, produced by Krishnamurti Foundation of India, Chennai, 2004. Price: Rs 60 each. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, Website www.kfionline.org)