Thursday, September 12, 2013

School, religion, holidays and food

This post has got very little to do with food. This post is unusual in as much as I am rather confused as to where I stand in many matters I touch upon. This post is something all of you should think about. It is to do with schools, religion, children and upbringing.

First I must explain my own case. I lived in South Bombay and our family was Hindu, but none of us were/are `practising’ Hindus. No going to temples, no God in the house, no poojas etc. I was put into an all boys Convent school by my parents. The school was run by Jesuits and was called Campion. In those days, Campion along with St. Marys and St Xavier’s Boys Academy were regarded as the better schools in South Bombay. All were Convents and only for boys. Cathedral and Bombay International were not convents, were co-educational and were also regarded as good. Anyway, my parents thought Campion was good for me so there I was.

Being a Catholic school, there were prayers every day at assembly. Often teachers made us pray just before lunch. If you ate lunch in the school canteen i.e. the school lunch, you definitely said a prayer before eating. The prayers were all Christian – referring to God as `Our Father In Heaven’, and when praying before mealtimes the prayers were `Bless Us, Oh Lord, And These Thy Gifts Which We Are About To Receive From Thy Bounty, Through Christ, Our Lord.’ All of us said prayers like this. There was no issue. My classmates were Jains, Kutchis, Gujjus, Parsee, Muslim, Bohri, and everybody prayed. I am sure this sounds familiar to a lot of you. Every week the Catholics in class went off for Catechism lessons, while the rest of us grappled with Moral Sciences. All of us turned out well adjusted, happy kids and, by and large, are now successful. The points being that (i) no one gave a second thought of praying a Christian prayer in school (ii) the idea of praying itself did not bother me too much.

Some days ago we were speaking with a neighbour who for some time taught at Arya Vidya Mandir [AVM] a well regarded school in the Western suburbs. She said that the school was heavily Hindu oriented; kids are made to recite Sanskrit prayers every day. Every Wednesday there is a `Havan’ in the school. There are `Havans’ performed before exams. Wikipedia says a `Havan’ `refers to any ritual in which making offerings into a consecrated fire is the primary action.’ A cousin of HRH the Queen of Kutch has her daughter in AVM, and she confirmed this state of affairs. Is AVM the Hindu equivalent of a Madrassa? Would you like to bring up your child in a school which has no students from another religion? Why do you look at a Madrassa with contempt? Is this not the same?

On hearing this I was appalled. I will tell you why. Over the years I believe less and less in `God’ and religious rituals irritate me. I would never have put my child in such a school. The wise HRH the Queen of Kutch pointed out that how was reciting Christian prayers in Campion any different from a Sanskrit prayer in AVM? She was correct. Am I too westernised, whatever that term may mean? If I was a parent today which school would I put my child? In a Christian Campion or Hindu AVM? I believe my answer would be Campion. But, you see the conflict here.

Let us switch to another connected matter. The Education department in Maharashtra just a few days ago, in an unparalleled and unprecedented step, declared a 4 day holiday for all schools in Maharashtra from 9th to 12th September. The Department explained that the youth wing of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, a political party formed by Raj Thackeray had demanded this stating that the Ganapati festival is celebrated by a large part of the population. As usual, when questioned, the Department said that they had given only two days holiday which would be made up by curtailing some Christian holidays that fell in the last week of December. It is true that Hindus form a dominant populace and Ganapati is celebrated by many. Frankly, I see no difference in granting school holidays for all or any festival. It is not that an Eid or Easter or Guru Nanaks birthday are less or more important than Ganapati. So, I cannot as such object to granting of these holidays. Furthermore, just because the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena demanded this is neither here nor there. My point being, is it a time to really rethink holidays, religions and the formation of schools. Should there be a minimum number of days a school should work and if it is a Muslim School like Anjuman Islam for instance, they can have 30 days off during Ramazan, if it is an AVM all the Hindu holidays and so on and so forth. Should we have religion-based schools? Should we have secular schools? Should secular schools have religious holidays?

Should parents be making such huge far reaching decisions on behalf of their children in putting them into an AVM or an Anjuman Islam or a Campion? Mind you schools are free to be wholly religious or vegetarian or impose any rules. The question is, should you as a parent knowingly put your child into such a cloistered school?

Turning now to food. I understand that we have different food habits. Vegetarianism, Jainism, non beef eating, non pork eating and so on and so forth. In Campion we had the good old Veg and Non Veg. Life was simple and uncomplicated. While I may have had a sausage sandwich in my dry lunch box, I looked with much envy at my friend Harsh Khatau who often got a box full of `chips’ or French Fries with a small container of ketchup. At times I yearned to have a lunch like that. I envied Harsh when he got chips for lunch. All of us brought whatever was given to us at home. Those of us who ate in school i.e. the school lunch ate veg or non veg with everyone else. The school had no rules and impositions.

Today 33 years after I have left school, I hear of schools which do not allow non vegetarian food to be brought into school by the kids. I am really horrified at this. No one is going to die if they eat non vegetarian food from their pals lunch box, they will not lose their hair or brains or turn black. I hear of school lunches where on certain days only Jain lunch is served. How can schools be so close minded? Of course no one should be forced into eating food which goes against their religious tenets, but should there not be a question of choice? Even choice for kids is to be removed? I feel so sorry for kids who today cannot even taste a non vegetarian curry and decide for themselves if they like it? HRH the Queen of Kutch grew up in a vegetarian home. But, neither  did her parents nor did the school prevent her from tasting a ham sandwich from a classmates lunch box or, going to a neighbour’s home and being given frogs legs for lunch. She had a choice. Today she eats literally everything, except raw onion!

So, as I said, I have no clear answers. I am shocked at how narrow-minded, closed and insular we have become. In 2013 parents actually choose that their kids should go to a vegetarian Hindu school while they themselves are non vegetarian at home and/or eat non vegetarian food at restaurants. Why? Schools have literally become religious ghettos. I feel so sad.

I firmly believe that in the last 33 years since I left school, instead of barriers breaking down, they have become worse. We are more intolerant, more rabid and simply worse off than before.


  1. Completely agree with you about our Society turning intolerant. I believe that things started worsening ever since we declared ourselves a 'Secular' nation. The politicians twisted the word to mean appeasement of vote banks and playing one against the other. During our school days not only our Parents but even our semi or illiterate Grand parents lived and taught us the real Hindu philosophy of respecting all religions but following our own. Thus one was not averse to reciting 'Christian' prayers at school or reading Bible lessons from a Catholic classmate's prescribed 'Religion Class' text book. Gradually the rot set in with religious identities, pride etc stoked by power seeking politicians resulting in tokenism, rituals and outward show of devotion becoming the definition of Religion. The idea that being a good human being is the basic requirement of being a good Hindu, Muslim or Christian is lost in the din of what passes as religious celeberations. I have ranted enough but we who are alarmed at the growing ghetto culture seem to be in the minority.

    1. Not a rant Ravi. It is absolutely correct. 44 years ago, when I started school, who gave a damm about religion. Today we cannot even allow Muslims in our housing societies. Why Muslims, there are enough hosing societies, builders, developers who do not allow a different community in their precious buildings. Why not start young? Put your child in AVM or its equivalent.

    2. Criticism of AVM would be valid only if it does not admit children from other communities, otherwise it would mean that the Indian definition of secularism has found another victim where a Hindu child saying English prayers is secular but asking children to recite Sanskrit slokas is communal. But again would other communities admit their children to AVM ? We live in times where the harmless celeberation of Valentines Day hurts certain religious sentiments and asking school children to perform Surya Namaskar considered one of the most effective and inexpensive exercises for strength and flexibility is considered blasphemous by others. Such are the depths to which we have sunk losing our sense of perception and discrimination.

    3. I asked around. AVM does not `officially' no admit other communities. But what is to be noted is that they allow students only from certain PIN codes. For the Bandra East school, significantly, Shivaji Park is allowed while Mahim and Kurla are not. I wonder why?