Roopali Sircar Gaur
Interview by Anita Nahal
QFTD: Hi Roopali, what a special delight for me to interview you, a friend, colleague and mentor and guide for two decades. It’s true that I do look upon you as a mentor as I have learned so many things from you in education, teaching and basic human interactions. So, welcome to QFTD and thank you so much for your time. For our readers, we share that you have been a professor of English for over four decades at different colleges of the University of Delhi, India, and you are also a writer, poet and have an initiative on children’s education, Mera Kitab Ghar (My Very Own Library) in which you are currently immersed. You and I became acquainted when we were both professors at Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi, India. Even though I later left the university and moved to the US, we have had a blessed professional and personal connection for the last almost 20 years.
Roopali: Thank you for honoring me with this interview on your prestigious website. To give you a quick and simple introduction, I recently retired as an Associate Professor of English from Delhi University, where I spent almost all my adult life, having been tenured at the age of 19. As a young woman I had dreamt of being a journalist, a pilot, a Rock star, a military officer, a bureaucrat....never a teacher. One morning, while waiting for my students, I realized I had the most powerful job in the world. I could change people's minds....so that's what I became...a changer of how people think....whether racial and caste biases, gender biases, social injustice, economic disparity, attitudes toward aging, money, relationships, you name it! Teaching literature made it easier. I grew with my students, learning all the way and coming into some wisdom.
QFTD: That’s you, Roopali! Tell us a bit with your journey across India as a child accompanying a military father. You have spoken about how it disrupted the normal flow of school education, however, it gave to you and your sister the opportunity to be home schooled. Looking back, what did you take away from both systems and what was the one thing you captured most in terms of educational benefit?
Roopali: My father was an infantry officer in the Indian Army and we led quite a charmed life, privileged and comfortable....we traveled across the length and breadth of India, soaking in the diversity of this great land of ours.
Growing up, we had very little formal education as we were taken out of school too often. One day, finally having given up on formal education as we knew it, my mom and dad made home into school. Blackboard and chalk, the radio, newspapers, sometimes tutors wherever they were available. In fact, the newspaper became our teacher. Language learning, reading, computing information and then discussing it with our two very learned parents, who became our teachers. Our classrooms were railway coaches as the train chugged across deserts and over rivers and ravines....long walks after dinner, the star filled sky, the plants and bushes and trees on those walks, the rain and thunder....everything, every time was learning time...we, my sister and I just loved it. And yes, no homework!
Home schooling in those days definitely helped us to learn in a free environment...but then parents have to put in a great deal....for instance, Sundays and holidays were field trip days. We went to factories and museums and libraries and government buildings. We went where many others had not been. This is what I have strived to do for my kids, even though they went to formal school.
QFTD: Wow, Roopali, it seems homeschooling was truly a magnificent learning process for your sister and you! Now, before you officially became a professor of English, it seems that “words” were a part of you, propelling and driving you to write! When did you feel the spark to write?
Roopali: Yes, I loved words. My parents were great readers and had a wonderful collection of books. In fact, shelves of them! They picked these up from used book shops, pavement bookstalls and bought encyclopedias from publishers on installments. Bed time was story time. It stirred my imagination and took me to faraway lands. I love writing! It plumbs the depths of my being. What a lot of words we have tucked away.
QFTD: Hmmm….And then, when did you decide you wanted to be a professor English?
Roopali: I never cared for teaching as a profession. It was my mom who thought I was too argumentative and should be a college professor! She literally pushed me into getting a degree in teaching, and I found myself a confident person inside the classroom. Not having been a very serious student myself, my heart went out to the ones who didn't seem interested. I knew why. Today, I love to hear a successful young woman or man tell me how much my words have meant to them.
My formal teaching years, and the more informal ones that will always be my life, continue to be wonderful. For me, teaching became my calling. I went beyond the classroom to work with my students in community development, gender studies and awareness, equal opportunity for people with disabilities and leadership training.
QFTD: Having been a professor myself, I can understand fully what you are saying! Roopali, let’s move a bit now to your community service. I know that your signature effort has been in the field of children’s education. Tell us about Mera Kitab Ghar and explain to the readers what it means and what has been your journey in this direction?
Roopali: Mera Kitab Ghar (MKG) is “My Very Own Library.” Mera Kitab Ghar (My Very Own Library) MKG is a backyard book club in a suburb of New Delhi). We are a non-profit organization that focuses on empowering young people in urban slums and in rural areas to reach their full potential as happy, healthy, contributing members of society. MKG is physically located in my backyard, and is a library of books and toys for children from anywhere. It is free and Sundays are filled with activities and nutrition. At MKG, we serve children and young adults who would not ordinarily have access to age appropriate books or toys. I am very proud that kids come here irrespective of their socio economic status and mix freely with each other. All resources have been donated. We are open every afternoon for after school activities; and all day on Sundays. Children and young adults from nearby urban slums have an opportunity to spend as much time as they would like in a quiet little sanctuary of books and foliage. In the spirit of renewing, recycling, reinvigorating, replenishing and restoring, all the books in the book club are gently used and generously donated by our wide network of friends, family and well-wishers. We also gladly accept donations of furniture and are always on the lookout for books, clothes and shoes!
Mera Kitab Ghar is also committed to recycling. We compost and try to save seeds and grow fruit trees and herbs. On Earth Day, the book worms took an oath to take care of the earth. The biodiversity of our small library garden is high.
Ultimately, MKG is a concept – a state of mind. All we need is a backpack, some story books, art supplies, a park, a pavement, a garage or a schoolroom to do this once a week. Anyone can do it!
Do stop by our Facebook page and say hello. We'd love to hear from you. Better still, come by, have some chai and meet our kids. They'll crack you up!
QFTD: Very noble of you to start this initiative! And I love the invitation of chai (tea)! Next time in New Delhi, I shall try my best to stop by. I can see your motherly side in this venture as I know you are a wonderful mother and your daughter and son are both doing very well in life. As a mother, what were your most cherishable moments that you would like to share with other mothers/parents as teachable/mentoring moments?
Roopali: I think all mothers are wonderful. We try to make our children's life better than ours. I admire you Anita for bringing up your son in a different location and under different conditions to be what he is today. My daughter is a United States civil servant, and my son an Executive Creative Director at a large international advertising company. But that's the professions they chose. What makes me proud and fulfilled is that wherever they are they are recognized for their humane qualities. When a cab driver in Malaysia tells me "your son is a very good man" or somebody in the United States says, "Oh why is my daughter not like yours?'' I feel I have done my job as a mother well.
I’d love to share some tips that worked for me.
Never tell your kids "I can't afford it". This causes frustration and signals that when you can, or when they can they must be able to buy it. Money becomes the prime reason for not owning something. It is always better to say something like, "Not now. You need to first focus on your studies, grow up a bit more, save some of your pocket money and then we can talk about it." It takes them a moment to understand what all this means, especially, when they are little; but it pays off in the end.
Remind your kids every other day of the right things. Every opportunity is a learning opportunity. I would tell my kids when during exams and tests that they should never use unfair means to get ahead...Their grades were important but not important enough to cost them their integrity.
Teach them always to be courteous and helpful. Gestures like offering a glass of cold water on a hot day to a delivery boy are great lessons I learnt from my mom, and I passed these on to my kids.
A visitor/guest /friend to your home is a guest for all of us. Your kids must make an appearance, greet the guest, make conversation and then leave, if they have to.
Teach your kid to be open minded. My most memorable moment as a parent was when six-year-old son asked me if his grandpa was a Muslim. We are Hindus by birth but embrace all religions actively at home. My father would always have an extra place setting at the dinner table, saying, "This is for Jesus". That was a moment of secular triumph for me.
QFTD: Very useful tips and so beautiful and wise! And thank you for your compliment to me…motherhood is the most blessed experience for me!
Roopali, you recently retired from Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi, tell us what are your plans since you are retired now. Where does Roopali see herself in the future?
Roopali: Ahhh...I see myself on the French Riviera leading a luxurious life! Or running Mera Kitab Ghar in faraway villages and shanty towns in India.
QFTD: I hope you are successful in all your dreams! Roopali, we are coming to the end of our interview and at this time, if you have any final words for our readers, especially the young in terms of education, teaching, motherhood, community service or on anything, please tell us in a few words.
Roopali: I would urge all of us, young and older, to give back to their communities. To embrace service. Give your time and talent at treasure. For most of us, our time and talent are our treasures. Give with joy, and give freely. We must put back into society what society has given to us. A great thinker of India, Swami Vivekananda said, "If you have received education and not given it to another you have committed a great crime.” Mahatma Gandhi said, "Each One Teach One". So profound and yet so simple to follow.
QFTD: Thank you so much for your interview and final profound and such real words. Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you and share your insights with our readers. I know they will truly benefit from your wise and inspiring words!
Roopali: Thank you for giving me the opportunity. I am honored.