Recess The Basis of Culture

This article was published in The Hindu (Open Page) dated 14th October 2018.

There is a beautiful park that is frequented by many in our suburban area. The geese, gulls, squirrels, grebes, mallards and pelicans are a constant source of joy, and I feel much refreshed when I spend an evening there. One day over the week-end, off I went to the park for a brisk workout. It was particularly crowded as people were enjoying the last few weeks of sunshine before the fall and winter cold set in.  


I found myself in several places having to slow down and take it easy, thus enabling me to listen to what people were saying from time to time. One time I found myself listening to a couple of women talk about the malady of modern times – the over-scheduled child’s life. The women were discussing the schedules of their 5th grade children.

As soon as he comes back from school, he has to go for Taek-wondo for 2 hours, then, violin class, and then his Math or English classes. I also want him to play basket-ball, so, the week-ends, he has Bala Vihar (the equivalent of Sunday school), swimming and basket ball. He asks me, – Amma, when can I do my homework? Poor fellow! I told him to skip his recess times, and just finish his homework during recess so that he need not be stressed about finishing it.

I turned around to see if they were joking, but they weren’t. They were genuinely worried about the children’s activities and wanted to solve the problem of finding homework time.

My heart went out to both the worried mothers and the harried children. 

I thought of how much I loved recess as child, and how much the children love recess now. I love listening to the recess games, and recess tales. I like to watch the elementary school children at play while dropping off the son to school in the mornings. It is a heartening sight to see the children find their friends, their faces breaking out into slow, wide smiles, and a spring in their step as they bound off to play.  

A few girls play the jump-rope. They stand on either side of the jump rope and swish the rope up and down while the person in the middle tries to jump as the rope comes under their feet. Every time one child trips, she smiles and good-humoredly lets go, while her friends cheer her on with their own smiles.


In just a few weeks, I see the children have gotten much better at the game too.

The days I am able to see the children play the jump-rope I feel as though a lovely light permeated my soul, and whispered to me that all would be well. These children will be the new leaders in a few years after all. If they know how to encourage each other and work together to lift everyone up, we will be fine, won’t we? 

Most days when I ask about school, I get recess-tales. The best lessons in life are those imparted at recess: The strength of companionship, the solidarity of friendship, the simple choice of being present for one another, and so much more.

Read here about a German philosopher who said Leisure is the basis of culture – from Brain Pickings

The daughter, I remember, used to describe in marvelous detail about how they transformed the playground into an underwater coral reef, and played a game called Sharks & Minnows. (That child should have been born a mermaid!) The son shows me his callused hands from attempting the monkey bars and the various shenanigans possible with this simple play structure.


I pondered on the solution the mother gave her child to skip recess and finish homework instead. Often we find ourselves in spots like this, where we are trying to solve a problem without changing any of the variables. But it was an important lesson to me, maybe sometimes we need to see what variable can be changed – in this case, what activity can be let go. Or schedule in a Magical Do-Nothing Day Or Magical Do-Nothing hours.

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After all, like Socrates said, “Beware the barrenness of a busy life.”


Do We Belong On Earth?

I envy these people who can quote things in passing with confidence. I have not that kind of eidetic memory. But I remember reading somewhere a few years ago that one of those great philosophers of yore, Socrates or Plato or one of their ilk, said something to the effect of the worst thing humankind has ever thought of was the concept of countries. I heartily agree. For what is a country boundary if not a line in the sand?

I was in a taxi a few years ago heading from somewhere to somewhere in the madness of Bay Area’s evening traffic. The driver looked at me in the rear view mirror and asked me if I came from India or Pakistan.

He then went on to say that he had just dropped someone who came from Pakistan. He loved the Biriyanis in the Indian and Pakistani restaurants. What delightful spices, he said and the conversation moved towards the role of spices in the world economy. He taught Economics in a small college in Greece before the country collapsed and he managed to move to the United States and he now drove taxis for a living.

While there are multiple things to spin out from this little interaction, I would like to draw the attention to a little thing said almost in passing. He thought India and Pakistan were one and the same, and I have often experienced the same sentiment and kinship whenever far away from the Indian subcontinent.

Image from The Night Diary – By Veera Hiranandani

It has always been something refreshing to note – especially given the continuing tensions in the region ever since the partition in 1947. It amuses me and gives me hope when I see how Pakistanis and Indians bond over a common culture, similar culinary traditions etc outside the Asian subcontinent, but within the sub continent the tensions continue to simmer.

A friend had recommended Veera Hiranandani’s book, the Night Diary. One of the largest human migrations in Human History at the time took place during the Indian independence from the British Raj. The India-Pakistan segregation is fraught with gore, bloodshed and the unfathomable rivalry that can be brought about by politically divisive acts.


The book itself is lucidly narrated – a twelve year old introverted child, Nisha, writes in her diary to her late mother as often as she can. She is lovingly cared for by her father, their paternal grandmother who lives with them and the cook, Kazi, who has been with the family for a long time. Her best playmate is her twin brother Amil.The mother, who passed away when the children were young, was Muslim, and the father is Hindu. It is heart-rending to read the way, the twins Nisha and Amil puzzle over what would have been the case had their mother been alive. Would they have to leave her and go to the Indian side?

“I had never wondered about being safe before. I just thought I was.”
― Veera Hiranandani, The Night Diary

I thrust the book in my mother’s hands to read, for I knew she would appreciate how cooking forms the bond between Nisha and their cook, Kazi.

Image from Wikipedia on Indian Spices:

This image was originally posted to Flickr by judepics at It was reviewed on by FlickreviewR and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.

The spices as they pass through the hands of Kazi and how Nisha derives a sense of creation and wholeness is captured as only one who loves the art of creation can. The feel of the dals and the peppers in the hands, the smell of the saffron in the rice and the whole time in the background a tension is brewing, a rift simmering when one night it is upon them – the pressure bursts, and the little family has to flee.

“I needed all the feelings to stop boiling like a pot of dal and be cool enough for me to taste them.”
― Veera Hiranandani, The Night Diary

Millions of people fleeing Pakistan, and millions making it into Pakistan in the opposite direction. Mobs ready to inflict violence at the slightest opportunity.

War is meaningless, and it is particularly unfair to the children.

14 million people were displaced in those few months of turmoil and over 2 million killed during the partition. One line in the sand that suddenly determined belonging or the lack of it.

One would think one learns from these events, but look at the numbers.

In the world today, there are currently more refugees than ever before. The rise of populism and nationalism means that the situation is deteriorating everyday. As of Jun 2018, an unprecedented 68.5 million people around the world had been forced from their homes. Among them are nearly 25.4 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. There are also 10 million stateless people who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement.

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Screenshot from – Jun 2018 figures

Source: UN Refugee Agency

We belong on Earth, do we not?