The Flight of the Dove: Building Cultures of Peace in the Classroom
Workshop for students on “Deconstructing the Other” by Ms. Jaya Iyer
(As reported by Divyanshi Chugh)
On January 12, 2013, Lady Shri Ram College for Women organized a workshop for school students on deconstructing the other. The workshop was the third event of the seminar, The Flight of the Dove: Building Cultures of Peace in the Classroom, conducted by Ms. Jaya Iyer, faculty member at Delhi University and National Museum, and a social activist since quarter a century.
The “Other” is a key concept of continental philosophy that refers to those who are perceived as ‘different’ from the self. With the key objective of making the students actively deconstruct their self and their conception of the other, as well as owning up to our belief-systems by learning to unravel schemas that create overgeneralized perceptual expectancies, the workshop integrated novel techniques of social self presentation and fun activities like construction of physical social structures through bodily interactions and role-plays.
Experiential learning and thoughtful reflections defined the contours of this workshop.
The workshop began with students introducing themselves and the resource person, Ms. Jaya directing the students to think deeper about why they introduced themselves the way they did. Most students identified themselves with respect to their schools with a few talking about the reasons, their passion for social causes which had brought them to the workshop. The group agreed to be consciously experiencing self in relation to relevant socio-cultural groups, like in this case because they were representing their school they chose to link themselves to it.
Encouraged by Ms. Jaya to mingle and make new friends, choose a partner and share their likes and dislikes, the next time the students introduced themselves, they did so beyond their schools.
Students revealed to be feeling better after having interacted with new people aka friends in a room full of unknown faces, astonished to find similarities. Some questions were raised: Why don’t then we interact in buses, on roads? Do we greet everyone we meet? Are we scared of people? Are we too busy? Is it dangerous? Or is it just improper? What prevents us from initiating a dialogue with individuals on streets? And will we find similarities amongst ourselves if we start interacting? Or will there remain only differences?
The Game of Greetings!
The lesser-thought about question, how do we greet each other?’ was posed to the students, who responded with hey!, hi, what’s up?, long time?, how have you been?. Contextualizing the same question, when asked how would they greet an elder, a villager and a muslim, their responses changed to ‘Namastey’, ‘Ram-Ram’ and ‘Salaam Walekum’, each of them deriving from the cultural roots apparent through our encounters in the social world. As Ms. Jaya regulated volume via her arms, the two groups wished each other the rarest of greetings, Ram-ram and Salaam Walekum in varied amplitudes.
Full of gusto, students went round the conference table as if it were a merry-go-round, creating new bonds on the tabla-like rhythm till they were statue-d and asked to form a tree, monkey and samosa with their partners and later Mandir, Jama Masjid, Police station, image of shaadi and puraaani Delli mein shaadi in their groups.
While the earlier images were free from any obvious religious connotations, the latter
group images carried religious meanings. On one hand, Mandir was depicted with the idols, Radha-Krishna’s statue and pundits, on the other, Jama Masjid was depicted with Namaaz-reading individuals, and triangular arcs. The image of bending down before god remained common across both i.e. the images of Mandir and Masjid.
So then came a gush of drama, laughter, action and romance: All with which our Bollywood movies overflow. Students were given three minutes to incorporate 10 characters and make a story and 2 minutes to dramatize the same. I’m sure you’d find the names interesting: Rahul, Simran, Bhagwati Prasad (yes, this gave them their share of the day’s laughter!), Ashok, Nassiruddin Shah, Vatika, Rosy, Kaalu, Peter and Suraiyaa.
Stories ranged from the typical Bollywood Rahul-Simran love story and their families opposition; the educated rational-minded new generations visit to Village’s Haveli, the Bhootiya Bangla to novel plots like the live coverage of an Indian marriage in the foreign media and the loyalty of a dog who saves a woman from rape.
Rather interesting were the patterns that emerged through all the plays. Yes, the ‘casting’ was similar! While Rahul was the young, smart boy of marriageable age, Simran was the most beautiful girl for whom Rahul fell. Nassiruddin Shah (in three stories) was apparently a servant, Fatima was the main actress’ friend, Bhagwati was an old mother and Kalu was the dog in most. What these recurrent features tell us about ourselves is our tendency to form impressions based on precious little external information, conveniently depending on our perceptual schemas and thus, categorizing individuals based on stereotypes even before we realize that we consciously are. Students drew inferences, not as a result of logical thinking or direct experience, but on the basis of pre-conceived notions about particular groups.
The much enjoyed naataks were followed by collective efforts at uncovering students’ responses, the characterizations in the plays and the underlying motives that had led students to assign names, denoting certain characteristics, to the play characters.
The discussions begin with the consciousness of how identities of young-old, white-black, good-looking and bad-looking are stereotyped. Students’ rich personal narratives about the Hindu-Muslim violence perpetuated due to conflict over the land they live on; lives of Muslims in Kashmir, who find themselves happier there than here; feeling of safety by a girl student who went to Filmistan at 10 PM: All witnessed a shift from me to we.
As the conversation progressed, what became apparent was the shift from Hindu-Muslim identities to Indian-Pakistani identities. Students begin to think independently about their constructions and their possible origins: While some saw the deep cultural justified hatred that go back to the country’s past experiences, manifesting through forms like overwhelming audience reactions to victories in cricket matches or in attacks that sustain Pakistan and India’s war enterprise as a cause, the others ascribed to explanations such as childhood memories and stories of partition as narrated by elders, social science lessons that teach political events such as Ayodhya in a patriotic light, the attacks by terrorists and their religious identities and presentation of news in extremely emotionally laden ways as triggers for past memories, anchoring them further.
The workshop was well concluded with the group’s reflection on the activities, leading to an initiation into the change that shakes taken-for-granted knowledge about this world through deconstruction of identities as have been labeled and taught.
Yes, with this self-experience of the mental representations that form attitudes and direct behavior, Ms. Jaya invited this to be a beginning. No doubt there have been historically shared experiences. Conflict happens, be it in Palestine, North-east, Chattisgarh, African nations, or between Indian and Pakistan, but what remains most important for us is to question, to break stereotypes and unlearn irrational ungrounded conditioned behavior.
With this she concluded,
‘When stories are told from multiple sources to multiple sources, they become hard. Really hard. But you, my dear, explore and see if there’re other stories because only stories and experiences will make us come out of prejudices. And come out of it not because we’re at discomfort, but because truth is larger than what we know. Take out time, and start looking at some ways of connecting. Everybody is everything. Let’s just step out of it and see. Let’s question everything that we get readymade. Travel, explore, and widen your own horizon. Let’s continue reflecting.’