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I had the great fortune of running into this great and valuable discussion at S A J Shirazi's blog - one that's not seen very much outside the blog forum.

I want to emphasize my support for some of the points raised in this discussion.

1) That both countries are guilty of hiding facts and presented a prejudiced view of their histories. Some folks in here have presented Bhagat Singh as an example of distortion, or the lack of mention, in history as taught in Pakistan. Similarly in India, while the BJP came to power, several NCERT history textbooks were rewritten to reflect a view that our ancestors did not eat beef (to appease the hardcore Hindutva supporters). This attracted hoarse criticism from various sections of our society and by and large, the Indian middle class. Historical distortion, whether it is with respect to denying a hero's status on the basis of his religious identity or denying a people's cultural habits, is distortion regardless. In the end, only truth matters, unless you believe that knowing the truth, you would rather other learn from lies. In which case, what you are promoting is not "education", but your own ego.

2) India's greatest challenge in terms of presenting its history in a factual manner is to remove the vestiges left by its Hindu Nationalist movement and its colonial rulers.

3) Pakistan's greatest challenge in terms of presenting its history in a factual manner is to remove the India-phobic perspectives and focus on rewriting the story of its people. Does this involve some soul-searching? Most probably.

History is best presented as a set of facts and opposing interpretations, so that the final interpretation is left to the reader him/herself. Ultimately, any meaningful interpretation is supported by real life experiences and not by bookish knowledge. If India's history textbooks excluded the section on the Indus Valley civilization, on account of the Indus Valley lying in Pakistan territory, then who is the worse for it? Me, the reader, who else? Because I have just lost a great part of my understanding of the great forces of history that shaped me.

Instead of taking different cultures at face value, real historians examine these similarities and differences in depth and often come up with more comprehensive truths than the xenophobic perspectives that nationalist governments often display. And this drives fear into the hearts of the middle class because there are people who want to live together despite their differences and there are people don't see that desire and want to tear them apart. Look at what's happening in Iraq!

As an Indian, do I care about what's taught in Pakistani history textbooks? At some level I have to. Because the first political conversation I had with a Pakistani friend went something like this:

Friend: Gandhi slept with two girls by his side.
Me: Perhaps, but you gloss over his accomplishments.
Friend: But he was weird.

I have read/heard from enough sources not to reject what my friend said. But, the fact that she found it meaningful in a conversation we were having about Pakistan and India's problems tells me that she's been indoctrinated to believe that just about everything about "Indian" history is bad.

I wonder if she realizes that when Nehru asked Gandhi to reconsider Jinnah's request for the Prime Ministership, it was Gandhi who suggested Jinnah's name for the PM to demonstrate that India was a democratic and secular republic. We have had Muslim presidents and prime ministers since then.

So, here's the next question:

Should Pakistanis be equally concerned about what's taught in Indian textbooks?

Of course. Because I do not want to hold a prejudiced, and ultimately false view of anything. I want to know the truth, the facts, pure and simple. I do not want it sifted for the digestible and the indigestible, for the morally repugnant and righteous or the patriotic and the unpatriotic.

Do we have any say over what our kids learn? This past weekend, an incident in a Boston tram forced me to think about whether we need to pay more attention to the people that influence them.

On our way home from a nice dinner in Little Italy, my friends and I boarded a very crowded tram. As the tram emptied itself gradually, we found ourselves sitting across from a middle-aged man with two curly-haired children wearing jerseys. Neither of them could have been more than 10 years old. They could have easily passed for a typical family returning from a ballgame.

The younger child was sipping a super-size plastic cup of cola. The man turned to him and said, "John, I think you're the slowest person I've seen drinking coke." Something in the voice told me that this man wasn't the children's father. A certain distance and a certain mockery that indicated that he was probably their uncle or a close friend of their family at best. There was enough familiarity between the children and him, but there was no sign of a father figure there. This became more obvious as the conversation proceeded.

The three of them were sitting next to a pretty, twenty-something year old girl carrying a large purse. My first impression was that she was also part of the family as the man chatted with her and she responded courteously with an occasional giggle. About two or three stops later, she stood up to leave and he (let's call him Mr. X) remarked, "You better take care of that purse. It's really big and I'm from New York. New Yorkers steal." She smiled and stepped off the tram. Mr. X turned to John's brother (let's call him Sam) and said, "You know, I could have gotten her number if I wanted."

A couple of minutes later, a group of girls boarded the tram and began talking excitedly near the exit. Mr. X looked at them and whispered to Sam, "What do you think? Isn't she cute? You think I can get her number?" Sam laughed awkwardly in awe, not knowing how to respond to this man who seemed to hold the key to an experience beyond his understanding. I wondered what was going through Mr. X's head.

You have to realize that although this man was trying not to be overheard, he spoke certain phrases loud enough for some of us to hear. I stared off into the distance, but had my ear turned in their direction. Evesdropping yes, but in this case, I would rather be discourteous than play willful ignorance.

Mr. X then proceeded to shift his glance across each and every girl in the train with a running commentary to Sam. It seemed that Mr. X had made it his goal in life to get the phone number of every girl he came across. Sam, on the other hand, had no clue what Mr. X was talking about, but he knew this was something new. This was something foreign to his experiences in the school playground. So, as if it weren't enough to demonstrate by example, Mr. X asked Sam, "Hey, what happened to that girl in your class? I thought there was something there. Come on, you can't be shy about these things." Sam grinned and fidgeted around trying to figure out what to say.

Sam's awkwardness revealed itself to everyone sitting around Mr. X and the children. A lady that had taken the vacant seat next to Mr. X and been smiling when he teased Sam initially, grew a frown on her face as she realized that Mr. X was no longer just an over-friendly uncle. This was a man that was straddling that grey area between child abuser and man-child. A lonely middle-aged man taking out his sexual frustrations on a child entrusted to him. A man who would have seemed entirely ordinary talking to friends in his age group had he any, but was entirely corruptive in the vicinity of children. Physical abuser Mr. X was probably not, but abuser nevertheless.

As I pondered these things, I tried to get an identity, a name or an address, something actionable. So my heart skipped a beat as Mr. X pulled out his blackberry when we reached our step. But my excitement was short-lived as he dipped it back into his pocket.

Could Mr. X have been a professional? Very likely. And that’s when it struck me - how completely ordinary looking people belie sick minds. There is a very fine line between a child abuser and a man-child. It's a line that can be crossed easily. So, my two cents to parents everywhere: watch over your children, at least until they're old enough to understand the meaning of platonic relationships. Otherwise, they risk growing into sexually frustrated men like Mr. X.

Disclaimer: The names used in this article are fictional.

Soon after I turned seven, I returned to my hometown in Kerala with my family. When my grandfather turned up at the bus stop, he was dressed in a neatly pressed, lightly starched shirt and dhoti with an umbrella in one hand and a clerk's bag in the other. For his pains to impress us, he received a chubby boy in a bahama shirt, checkered shorts with a videogame in one hand and a fruit packet in the other. It was an awkward meeting.

Almost immediately after moving into my grandparents' home, I began to view Appuppan as a distant figurehead out of tune with my life. I desperately shut him out along with everything in our quiet village. I silently ignored him and whiled away the mind-numbingly slow moments on my videogame. I would have played it that whole summer too had it not died.

Kerala's climate has never been forgiving to delicate electronics. It was either the scorching sun or the endless downpour that killed my toy. I don't know which to blame. One day, I left it on the roofless porch of our house in a lapse of judgment. A few hours later, I returned to find it dead. I dismantled it and made some feeble attempts to reassemble it, but the game did not yield. It just sat there, lifeless.

I tried to pretend nothing had happened. But I could not have been more bored. As I began ranting, the peaceful quiet of our house came under attack. I unnerved everyone in the family with my constant complaints. I don't know what I was looking for, but I seemed to have struck a nerve because soon enough, Appuppan got up from his chair and stepped outside the house.

He walked up to a short, young coconut tree and sliced off a leaf with his rusty machete. Coconut leaves are special; unlike banana leaves, they are extremely thin, long and durable. And until then, I never thought of them as more than leaves. In Appuppan's ancient hands, they turned into clay. Reaching into the depths of his childhood memories, he twisted the ends of the leaf here, there, across, under and over itself until lo and behold, a rounded cube sat in his hands. He handed it to me and said, “See, it's a ball.”

The pessimist that I am, I expected it to unravel immediately. But, it lasted more than three whole days. And even after I had exhausted its utility, Appuppan was more than happy to slice off another leaf and work his magic. As the days flew by, I invented new games to while away the time. And Appuppan was always there to refill the supply. An average coconut tree has something like twenty branches and more than a hundred leaves on each branch. That summer, between him and I, we barely used an entire branch. To a tree, that's like pulling a hair off your head. But to my Appuppan and me, it was a limb across the gulf between us.

If you thought this was about a girl, I apologize. Because my first love was a children’s story called “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”.

Charlie was to me the hero who lived my life before I did. Lonely and penniless, Charlie was an outsider in his own town. At an age when indulgence in chocolate was encouraged, Charlie’s parents could hardly afford a warm home. His life did not lack warmth because there was plenty of it from his grandparents and parents who lived in the same wooden cabin. But, he could not venture far outside of it. I also know what it feels like to be an outsider.

I was five when my family packed up our belongings and moved to Germany. One day, I found myself holding my father’s hand and collecting my water bottle on the shelf by the classroom as he talked with my nursery teacher. The next thing I remember is boarding a plane full of quiet, serious Germans. With a one-year old bawling toddler in one hand and a five year old child in the other, my parents had quite a challenge on their hands when they arrived in Frankfurt. And it didn’t help that I could not speak English except for a a very practical “Madam, may I go to the toilet please?”. To call it culture shock is an understatement.

The feeling of being an outsider is universal to expatriates. And most take the challenge of assimilating into a new culture and learning a new language in their stride. But at five, I was overwhelmed. I was so stricken by fear that on my first day on the way to my new school, I sat quietly in the school bus, squarely facing the window, all by myself on the seat. Silence though on a school bus is like shouting in an exam hall. It just doesn’t happen. A slightly older girl noticed me and introduced herself. She said, “Hi”, but I didn’t respond. I was too scared. She asked, “Why don’t you speak?” What could have I said? At that age, I could understand English when it was spoken, but could not muster a single line of self provoked thought. I didn’t realize how hard I was trying to avoid her until she asked, “Are you kissing the window?”

My attempts to learn English were no less successful. I remember my first snowfall and the bewilderment it brought to me. Our kindergarten teacher was a lovely lady, perhaps a little culturally challenged, but only a little. She asked us to draw snowmen, but I had never seen a snowman. Yet, art is often divorced from reality, so it probably did not matter. The real fun started when she asked us to label our drawings. Now, I could not spell “snow” for the life of me, let alone “snowman”. So I did what seemed to me was the next best thing. I looked at my closest neighbour’s drawing and copied him. But, unlike high school where copying a word here or there may seem pretty quick and easy to do, my writing skills at five could not have matched a snail’s pace for all the practice in the world. So, my pride at discovering a shortcut was short-lived and I got quite an earful from my teacher when she discovered my tiny, ever so innocent, sin. I absorbed a valuable lesson then and there: as an outsider, you have to hold yourself by your bootstraps.

It’s hard to tell, but I may have continued feeling that way all through my life had I not come across Charlie in my school’s Scholastic Book catalogue. I’m not sure what drew me to the book, but I insisted on placing an order for it. The day it came, I picked it up and did not put it down until I finished reading it. And by the time I did, Charlie had given me a new lease on life.

Many folks I run into grew up reading up Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl fans are hard to find among them. Maybe it’s because Blyton’s books are reassuringly full of families, friends and stories placed in domestic settings. There is nothing outlandish about them. Dahl’s heroes on the other hand were almost exclusively individuals fighting their alienation. Matilda, the precocious girl who takes on a strict disciplinarian of a principal and an insensitive family. BFG, the giant who refuses to eat people unlike other giants. Mr. Fox, the father who saves his family from a bunch of farmers bent on uprooting his home from under a tree. And lastly, Dahl himself, in the autobiographical story of his childhood, Boy. I recognized all of them. They shared my growing pains, my culture shock and my place as an outsider. And yet, none of it would have mattered had they not faced those problems. In the end, they worked out their own place in life. That held out hope for me. That meant a world of difference for me.

Silverine recently posted a blog to point out the role of compassion in Western societies. After reading it, I recollected a story told by my English teacher from his experiences in India.

Mr. Born was then just Peter and in his own words "another diplomat brat" based in Delhi. But, unlike many diplomat kids, Peter took some time to travel through India. It was during one of those journeys that he found himself hungry and sitting in a third class train compartment passing through India's hinterland.

It was one of those compartments that was packed to the brim with people - the kind that you watch with mild amusement if you have never seen arms and heads sticking out of the window in reckless abandonment. The kind with yellow metal bars that poke through your skin and leave indelible imprints if you lack a thick hide.

And Peter was hungry. But he had a dilemma as the train pulled into a station. If he left the compartment, he could lose his seat, but worse still, there was no knowing when the train was scheduled to leave. So he could miss it while his tea was being brewed. But, we all have angels watching over us and to Peter's happiness, his fellow passenger noticed his discomfort. A stranger who seemed willing to help Peter. He offered his assistance and convinced Peter that as a native, he was more experienced in these matters. So Peter gladly forked over a hundred rupee note for lack of change. The stranger stood up and left the train. Peter waited.

And waited. As the train jerked and slowly started leaving the platform, the truth gradually dawned on Peter. What's a hundred, you might ask. Well, it was Peter's last remaining money. And he was still hungry.

Most people would break down under these circumstances. Peter tried hard, but even he had to acquiesce to a wet outburst of tears. His neighbours felt awkward. One of them start giggling with his companion at Peter's expense. It was too much and he expelled his rage in fluent, unaccented Hindi, "Chup ho jao!" Not so strong for most people, but coming from an American seated in a train full of village and town dwellers, it was effective. The murmur died down soon, only occasionally interrupted by Peter's dying sobs.

Unbeknownst to him, a man sat in the hallway in that tendon-stretching huddle that is characteristic of elderly men. One of the millions of farmers ferrying between their villages and the towns to market their produce. He had been a mute witness to the whole situation until now. He stood up, pulled a handful of bananas from his gunny bag and walked up to Peter. He laid them in his lap. It was an offering of help from a stranger who had otherwise no reason.

Slowly, one by one, each passenger handed a few rupee notes to Peter, until he had enough to see him all the way home. And all it took was one kind soul.

Big things happen with small gestures.

An economics professor, tired of teaching theory, lent a hundred rupees to a woman as a practical experiment once. Today, Grameen bank lends money to 5.6 million members who come from poor families.

A man marched to the sea to make salt. Today, a nation of a billion goes to sleep with better prospects.

Big things happen with small gestures.

From the BBC website:

A lot of common errors were transposing errors, for example: First Aid Centre was Fivst Aicl Centrt. Another sign read: Help potect the cultural relecs, help protect the railings.
Mark Quan, Toronto, Ontario

I have two favourites from spending many years working in China. At the Terracotta Warriors Museum in Xi'an a sign said "Cherishing Flowers and Trees" which meant "keep off the grass". The other on a cruise on the Yangtse River, "Don't Bother" instead of "Do not Disturb" on the cabin doors. There were many others but these always made me smile.
Lee Tomkow, Santa Barbara, California

Whilst living in Beijing about a year ago, I came across a park in a residential area in the Shunyi district which (although intended for use as a 'dog park') was translated to 'Dog-Bark Park'. Not to mention an apartment building which, for some bizarre reason beyond my knowledge was named "An Australian Lady and Her Lifestyle".
James, Spring, TX, USA
At the Simatai section of the Great Wall of China there is a sign that reads: People and flowers, plants help each other in breath, if you pick the flowers they will die, and you will reduce your life too. A lovely message somehow gone somewhat wrong.
Ollie Boothroyd, Windsor, UK

"Site of jumping umbrella" (paragliding site)
Michael Pye, Cambridge, UK

"No striding". On a menu: "The oil explodes the shrimp". "Pleasant aftertaste". On a sign: "Keep fire in safe hands, we live in a safe world."
Emily, Bremerton, WA, USA

My favourite is: "Please take advantage of the chambermaids" on a hotel brochure.
Andrei Pogonaru, Bucharest, Romania

At one of the bigger train stations (and I'm kicking myself right now because I can't remember which one!) there is a huge, and I mean huge, sign which states simply "Question Authority". Remember, this is an incredibly heavily controlled officially Communist state. The sign is merely pointing to the help desk.
Peter Douglas, Edinburgh

The taps in my hotel room in Beijing had a fancy engraved sign "No Drinking Without Dealing" - I suspect they meant "boiling". There are so many examples but my favourite may have been at the Ming Tombs "Environmental Sanitation of the Scenic Spot Needs Your Conserve" - indeed it does.
David Graves, Seattle, USA

Forbidden: Prostitution, gambling and drag abuse!
Lou, Beijing, China

I have stayed in Shanghai many times for work. The new subway at Jing An Temple was proudly opened early for tourist trips. All the east exits said "East Exit". All the west exits said "Wast Exit". The next trip back the offending words were covered with duct tape.
James Phethean, Helston UK

When I was living in Beijing in 2000, I saw a sign in front of a rock garden in the Forbidden City that warned tourists "Please do not climb the rocketry".
Craig, California

Airline Pulp - The only English description on a snack package handed out with drinks on Southern China Airways.
Andrew Hobbs, Henley on Thames, UK

There are temples in Kerala where you can spot a banyan tree ("aal") intertwined with a mango tree ("maav"). This beautiful symbiosis gives a subtle meaning to the word "aatmaav" or soul. The reason I found this relevant today was something that I read on how parts of Africa have a concept called "ubuntu". Frankly, if it weren't for Clinton there's only a slight chance I would have heard of it.

The varied set of responses to a BBC article reflect how powerful and yet, complex a word unbuntu is:

Ubuntu is at the heart of the South African truth and reconciliation process. The term Ubuntu, according to Tutu, has perhaps its equivalent in Western world: "I think therefore I am." The Ubuntu version of this same concept would be translated as "I am human because I belong. I participate, I share." Ubuntu embraces the worst in the other with the awareness that I would have done the same evil if I were in their shoes. It comes from the grim realisation that in as much as people are capable of doing good, there is always a danger of an evil force that works at various levels possessing people and making them do things that they would not normally do.
Dawit Yehualashet, Ethiopian in Goshen, IN, USA

The essence and depth of 'ubuntu' as a concept lies in the age-long African philosophy and practice of communalism and shared objectives. You are your neighbours' keeper...We are all extricably linked and if you buy into the philosophy of ubuntu then I have your back and you have mine. I am because you are - togetherness is it.
Lawrence Mba, Toronto, Canada

It is refreshing to see a Western leader talk about this concept because many people perceive there to be a clash between Western and non-Western cultures on the question of how to build a society. Do you base it on the concept of the individual where you encourage competition to elicit the best qualities in us? Or do you base it on the concept of the community where you encourage cooperation which may at times, require personal sacrifice for the good of all?

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