The things you can learn from an auto driver…

Taxi drivers anywhere in the world are a chatty bunch. Well, guess what? Auto drivers in India are no different. Below is the exchange between my wife (P) and the auto driver (AD) after the younger one had been dropped off to school. The conversation took place in Hindi but I’ve transcribed Hindi & English for AD’s dialogues and English only for P.

AD: Is school ke liye kitna donation lagta hai? (What’s the donation to get a child into this school? School in question is NPS Koramangala)

P: This school doesn’t require any donation.

AD: Kya? Donation nahin lagta? (What? No donation?!)

P: No, thats one of the good things about this school – one of the reasons why it is in demand.

AD: Fees kitna hai? (How much is the fee?)

P: Annual fee for first year is Rs. 7o,000 but, for subsequent years, the fee actually reduces.

AD: Acchha. Maine Rahul Dravid ko teen bar dekha. Uska beti yahan jaata hain nan? (I see. I saw Rahul Dravid thrice recently. His daughter goes to this school, right?)

P: No. His son goes to this school. It’s Kumble’s daughter who also attends this school.

AD: Aakpo pata hai Dravid kahan rahta hai? (Do you know where Dravid lives?)

P: (vaguely recollecting) Indiranagar?

AD: Nahin. Indiranagar mein to uska maa baap rahta hai. Dravid to Forum ke pas bada building main rahta hai. (No. It’s Dravid’s parents who live in Indiranagar. Dravid lives in Koramangala, near Forum).

P: I see. At the Prestige Acropolis?

AD: Haan. (Yes.)

AD: Kumble to Basavangudi mein rahta hai. (Kumble lives in Basavangudi)

P: (exclaiming) Wow! he comes to drop his kid from that far?

AD: (continuing) Jis building mein Kumble rehta hai, woh usi ka hai. (Kumble owns the building he lives in)

P: (now impressed) Is Dravid a Kannadiga or Tamilian?

AD: Arre! Dravid to Madhya Pradesh se hai. Bas – uske maa baap yahan aake settle ho gaye! (Dravid’s not even from this area – he’s from Madhya Pradesh – his folks came and settled down in Bangalore!)

AD: Haan! Kumble yahan ke lagte hain! Kannadiga hain. (Kumble, on the other hand, is a bonafide Kannadiga)

Masti ki paathshala (for the First Grader Wannabe)

(Note: This started off as a school-centric post for both our 5.5 year old and the almost 3-year old but is now focused entirely on the former.)

We had seen Rang De Basanti earlier this year so the song Masti ki Paathshala was still fresh in my mind. Masti ki Paathshala (in Hindi) translates to School of Fun. Our goal was to find a school with the right balance between academic rigor and masti. When I made the 2-week trip to India in June, I was fortunate to meet a VC in Bangalore. This VC had moved back to India 3 years earlier and had done a thorough research of the Bangalore schools. He shared his perspective in a most useful way. He categorized the four major school boards (ICSE, CBSE, Karnataka State Board, and IGCSC) across two dimensions:

  • Emphasis on theory vs. practical education
  • Strictness of the teaching staff (e.g. “Very Strict” = rule by fear, “Mild” = American-style)

This is how he drew the table:

School Board % Theory Teaching Strictness
State Board 95% Very Strict
CBSE 70% Strict
ICSE 50% Mild-Strict
IGCSE 20% Mild

Most Indians are aware of the first three types of school boards. The last one was unfamiliar to me until we started planning our move to India in full earnest. IGCSE (International General Certificate of Secondary Education), started in 1988, is a two-year programme, spread over Class 9 and 10, and leads to the final examinations offered every year in May and November. It is conducted by two UK assessment bodies: Edexcel (also known as London Examinations) and Cambridge International Examinations (CIE). IGCSE is described as a balanced curriculum and a flexible course of study with an emphasis on practical approach to teaching and learning. This Rediff article provides a good primer on IGCSE.

Both P and I had attended ICSE schools and neither of us had any complaints about the ICSE board. What I recall is that there was always a healthy debate on whether CBSE or ICSE schools were better. I vaguely recall reading that CBSE school students did better in engineering college entrance examinations. I’ll confess that the State Board schools didn’t figure high in our calculations due to the following reasons: majority of our peer group are either ICSE or CBSE school alums, mandatory local language, and a high pedagogy coefficient.

In this post, I’m not attempting a comprehensive analysis of Bangalore schools. Bangalore Schools and Chitra Aiyer’s blog post (A list of good schools in Bangalore) are noteworthy sites on this front. Our perspective was biased by a small number of recommendations from our social graph. While some parents finalize the schools first (which automatically impose a certain residential zone), we picked Koramangala for the following reasons: its community, location convenience, and comfortable commuting distance. The clincher was that our top school picks were all within fighting distance from Koramangala:

  • National Public School (Koramangala & HSR Layout Branches)
  • Greenwood High School
  • Delhi Public School (DPS)
  • Bethany High School

The odds were stacked against us since we arrived in Bangalore a few months after the school year had started. You are already aware of our initial tryst with NPS (described in The curious case of the traveling chairman). They didn’t have any open slots for midyear admission but we applied for the next academic year. At the time of writing this post, we are awaiting news from both NPS Koramangala and NPS HSR Layout on whether they’d invite S for an admission test (in Jan and March respectively). Bethany also didn’t have any open slots for midyear admission but we had heard enough good things to keep on our list for next year. DPS, by virtue of being a solid national brand, was a strong contender but we didn’t try for midyear admission since we didn’t want S to have a long commute in the first year. Which brings us to the reasons why we ended up picking Greenwood High for S:

  • Several friends (including that VC friend) recommended it as a very good ‘soft landing’ for returning-from-America kids
  • While it’s a new school, the school administrators have a shared pedigree with the venerable Bethany
  • Curriculum, teaching style and facilities suggest an International bent with an emphasis on extra-curricular activities

The main criticism we heard about Greenwood was its high teacher turnover. We figured we’d keep an eye on that trend for the first year and take our chances. Our current thinking is to continue S at Greenwood High unless he gets admission into one of the NPS branches.

The curious case of the traveling chairman

NPS Koramangala - Pic courtesy npsinr.com

It was Bangalore Day #5 and our first Friday. I had taken the day off for the express purpose of visiting the top school on our short list – National Public School. In a separate post (Masti ki paathshala), I will discuss our criteria in choosing the right school for our kids and how National Public School (“NPS” for short) captured our imagination. NPS Indiranagar (the first campus) was founded in 1982 by Dr. K. P. Gopalkrishna, and who still serves as the Chairman of the (now) four campuses. NPS Koramangala (started in 2003) and NPS HSR Layout (started in 2007) were our target locations since we were converging on Koramangala as our future neighbourhood.

Since the school year had already started 2+ months ago, a colleague advised me that our best bet was to ‘seek an audience’ with Dr. Gopalkrishna and impress upon him why NPS was our top choice. So off we headed to NPS Koramangala. We got there pretty early but were greeted by a queue of eager parents ahead of us. “Early parent catches the proverbial school seat”, I muttered to myself. I joined the queue while P kept the kids busy in the waiting area. I stated my desire to meet Chairman G and pat came the reply – “the Chairman is traveling”. Attempts to gather an eta proved futile. Dejected, I rounded up the family and we started trooping out.

As we reached the gate, a spanking green Skoda Laura passed us. Like any self-respecting nosy Indian would do, I peered inside the tinted windows. I glimpsed a suited gentleman in the back seat. My Sherlock Holmes instincts on overdrive, I asked the guard if it was Chairman G in the Skoda. He answered in the affirmative. We hurried back inside the school and I got back in line. When I announced that I wanted to meet the ‘recently returned from his travels’ Chairman, the lady (now smiling) asked me how I knew. Purely rhetorical question of course. Now that the cat was out of the bag, she asked me to write down my ‘particulars’ (Indian term for name & purpose). After an additional thirty minutes, we got the audience.

We had no real expectations from this meeting. False! The eternally unrealistic optimist (read “me”) expected the closing lines to sound something like this “Mr. and Mrs. Kuruganti, I am so impressed with your background, credentials and excellent moral standing. Even though the school year started two months ago and our classrooms are full, I’m willing to make an exception for your boys – in whose eyes I can already see their future academic brilliance.”

Ok. So the interview didn’t quite end that way but you knew that, right? We had a really interesting (and at times argumentative) discussion. I’ll save the specifics for a latter addendum. This post has gestated a full 50 days – if I postpone any longer, it won’t see the light of day.

Dec 21 2008 Update: Found this comprehensive and excellent post on Bangalore schools by blogger Chitra Iyer (this is her new blog site):

http://r2blore.blogspot.com/2007/02/list-of-good-schools-in-bangalore.html

Feb 21 2009 Update: In late January, out of the blue we got a call from NPS Koramangala that our 3 year old had been accepted into the Montessori program. Apparently the Montessori 2-year program runs parallel to the kindergarden program. We had applied to the kindergarden program yet they considered our son for the Montessori. After thinking about the admission decision for a few days (virtually unheard of based on the reaction of the admission officials), we accepted. We had to pay the entire school year’s tuition 6 months before the school year even began – nice! Then again, this appears to be the standard operating procedure in all Bangalore (perhaps all Indian?) schools.

Apr 18 2009 Update:  Shortly after S wrote the admission test for NPS Koramangala (1st Grade), we made a few trips to both the NPS branches – Koramangala and HSR Layout. Turns out my mind had played a trick and I owe someone an apology. When I wrote this post in mid-Oct 2008 and compared the NPS Koramangala receptionist to folks working in a government office, it was really the NPS HSR Layout receptionist I was thinking about. The receptionist lady at Koramangala, with whom I had several recent cordial conversations recently is a fine and decent woman and I’m sorry I mistakenly maligned her (via this blog post) from Oct ’08 to Apr ’09. I’ve edited the relevant section and moved it below..

——–start retracted portion

If you haven’t been to an Indian government office in quest of [insert_your_favorite_service_here], some background is in order. The person ‘behind the desk’ holds a position of great power. And clearly they never heard of with great power comes great responsibility. Entire tomes can be written about the government peon, the clerk, the hospital compounder (Indian title for a medical assistant) but… suffice it to say that a common operating theme is to infuriate the ‘service requester’. This is not to say that they are all cut from the same cloth. No sir! Their style can range from the bored and the lazy ignorerto the doing_you_a_big_favour to the cant_you_tell_I_am_really_important.

NPS Koramangala HSR Layout is no government office but the lady at the reception desk was an interesting blend of the aforementioned profiles. When it came to my turn, her expression bore a mixture of boredom and mild annoyance.

—- end retracted portion