Every year, pretty much everyone available from DHAN Foundation and its family of “themes” gets a chance to attend the “DHAN Retreat.” The retreat takes place in different places each year. There are also different themes each year.
Because of my surgery, I wasn’t able to attend this last retreat, which was somewhat unfortunate since I really like the place that the retreat was being held. (You can see some pictures of the location here; I visited some students back in 2007. It was pretty great.)
Although I wasn’t able to attend, I was asked to write a “retreat report” which gets published along with reports from some 350 or more colleagues of mine. I think I’ll have to bring the reports along with me for my long flights that I’m trying to book for the end of this month.
Anyway, I enjoyed writing my “report,” and figured some of you might be interested in reading it, so here it is:
An Interview With Ananda Mahto
It’s always a little bit strange when a writing teacher has a hard time putting things in writing. They are always so helpful to others who are struggling with writing—always quick to offer so many different tips—so, why can’t they just apply the same advice in such situations? Who knows….
But, tasked with writing a retreat report, I found myself struggling to find the right words. So, instead, here’s an interview.
Interviewer: Who are you?
Ananda: Well, that’s somewhat of a philosophical question, isn’t it? I’d say I’m the current composite of all my past experiences, experiences which have been directly and indirectly influenced by a unique mixture of inputs from my family, friends, teachers, colleagues, and… society overall.
Interviewer: Uh. OK. Tell me about your family.
Ananda: Just names? Or something more?
Interviewer: Something more, please.
Ananda: I live in Madurai with my wife, Amy. Amy inspires the creativity and motivation within me. No children—just three cats. Back at my other home in the US, there’s my mother, who I know is dying to have Amy and me return to the US, but who, at the same time has taught me the value of freedom of thought and expression through her continuous support in my activities over the past 30 years. My older brother lives in Los Angeles, along with his wife and son, and my younger brother lives in San Francisco.
It would take hours to tell you about the rest of my family—especially since I consider my friends and my pets all part of my extended family—but I don’t think that’s what these retreat reports really cover.
Interviewer: OK. Fine. So, tell us about your time in India, specifically at the Tata-Dhan Academy. What brought you here? Do you know when you’ll be leaving?
Ananda: To tell the truth, India wasn’t my first choice; but, Amy got a great job in Chennai immediately after she completed her master’s degree, so we thought we should try India out and see how we liked it. It turns out that we like it a lot here, so as long as the Indian Government keeps issuing visas permitting us to work, we will try and stay here.
Amy introduced me to the Academy. She had attended their “ART of Upscaling Microfinance” programme and passed on my information to a few people. A few months later, I was coming down to Madurai from time to time to observe students during their presentations, and a year later (almost two years ago) I moved down full time and started teaching spoken and written English communication.
Interviewer: So you’re an English teacher?
Ananda: Pretty much. But I also do a lot of other things.
Interviewer: Such as what? What are some of the things you’ve done in, say, the past year?
Ananda: Well, as my education background is in curriculum development and as I have a strong interest in web-based technologies, I have successfully conducted a few online classes at the Academy. I had the support of Rajkumar and Murugan in getting things ready, and Ramya has been patiently learning how to add new lessons and do some of the background tasks like course backups and other maintenance. Of course, the students should be thanked too; since this is a new initiative, there have been several bumps along the way, but they have always been flexible and tolerant.
I also wrote a “style manual” for the Tata-Dhan Academy students. This was a surprisingly big project—there always seems to be something else that needs to be added, but at some point you realize that you just need to get the book published and start working on the second edition, which is one of the projects that I’m currently working on.
My students, though they sometimes make me want to pull my hair out (I’m going bald, so maybe I should enjoy pulling my hair out while I still can), also make me very proud from time to time. So, a few students and I decided to establish a student website where some student work can be showcased. We’ve got photos, videos, fiction, non-fiction, reports…. The list of contents is growing. In the last six months, there has been some 25 posts or so made, which I think is a pretty decent accomplishment for them.
Interviewer: What about some other Academy-related work?
Ananda: I share a cabin with Sangeetha and Jena, and since they are both involved in the Advanced Centre for Enabling Disaster Risk Reduction (ACEDRR), I sometimes get involved in ACEDRR’s work too.
Interviewer: Really? How so?
Ananda: Well, for example, I helped Sangeetha in getting the ACEDRR website to go online, and I offered some design support for their brochure, and some content advice for their 2009 calendar. I’m also currently completing a short book for ACEDRR on integrating disaster risk reduction with development efforts.
Interviewer: Anything else?
Ananda: There’s my work with Shanthi. Last year, I wrote a very brief document on diary writing and process documentation for the students. We’ve redesigned it as a nice little handbook, and this January, we’ll be giving it to the 9th batch of Academy students to help them with their fieldwork.
Shanthi and Sangeetha have both been incredibly influential in my overall knowledge of development work in India. I’ve gotten to visit students with both of them, and in both cases, I’m sure it was as much a learning experience for me as it was for the Academy students.
Other than this work along with my colleagues, a lot of my time is also spent editing work, whether it be from students, other faculty, or elsewhere.
Interviewer: What kind of work?
Ananda: It ranges, really. At the moment, for example, I have a stack of articles waiting on my desk to be edited for Amina so she can put it in Development Matters. I don’t know for sure how much we’ve done for that, but my estimate would be some 30 articles, about 1,500 words each. Suneetha has been very helpful to me getting the first set of corrections made—that helps to speed the process up a little bit. Then there is always other editing work, like advertisements for the Programme in Development Management, brochures, handbooks, letters to other NGOs….
Interviewer: You should establish a team….
Ananda: We sort of have, although at the moment, it’s just Suneetha and me. We don’t have any clever name yet. We’re just called the “Documentation Team.” We had some huge ambitions—like a newsletter for the Academy, an annual journal for the Academy, and regular website updates. Unfortunately, as a time-strapped two-member team, we’ve had a really hard time actually getting beyond helping others with their documentation needs and creating some output of our own. But hopefully some of this can materialize in 2009.
Interviewer: That’s too bad. What are some other challenges have you faced?
Ananda: Some of the challenges are personal, some are professional, and some are a combination of the two. For example, I’m really picky about time. If my students submit their assignment five minutes late, their marks start to drop. And most of my work in the US had similar respect of timeliness. But time here is just different, and obviously I don’t have any right trying to change that. I think it is more reasonable for me to try to adapt rather than expect everyone around me to change, but it does create some challenges and frustrations for me.
My workplace itself is also somewhat of a challenge. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’m conducting online classes. Well, this is difficult when there is no power, or when the internet is not working. Unfortunately, due to the remote setting of the Academy, these are some of the rough spots which still need to be evened out before we can offer, say, distance education online, or a multimedia language lab.
And, I must admit that, as much as I love my work, I really miss having Saturdays free. I’ve always seen my weekends as my chance to teach myself new things—that’s how I learned web-design, for example—or as a chance to relax with my cats, play or listen to some music, draw some pictures and write some stories, and drink a lot of good coffee.
Interviewer: You’ve mentioned very “techie” and “artsy” things throughout your interview today. How did you end up teaching?
Ananda: I’ve actually been teaching since I was 21, when I went to China and taught conversational English to master’s students. After that, I worked for a non-profit, People’s Self-Help Housing, where I helped start a pilot after-school programme for children from low-income families.
Interviewer: So, Tata-Dhan Academy sort of also fits your requirement for an appropriate place to practice your work in that you are both teaching and helping to improve the lives of the poor.
Ananda: It does. I won’t lie though. In India—unlike if I were in the US—I don’t think I would have much success working directly with the community. After all, I really can only communicate in English, and in villages, that just won’t suffice. So, to me, the next best thing that I can think of is helping the Academy’s students be prepared with the communication skills they might need in their work in the development sector. DHAN Foundation also reminded me a lot of the NGO I worked at in California, so I was very excited to leave my job as a web-designer in Chennai and take up the opportunity to move to Madurai. Since then, my work has been a lot more rewarding.
Interviewer: Do you ever want to teach things other than English, like web-designing or computer training?
Ananda: I teach English for a few reasons. First, it is what I’ve been trained in, and I think it is where my strength is. Second, it is an important language in India, especially for anyone who has to deal with funding agencies or researchers. Third, my interest in art and computers and so on is a result of my hobbies. Whatever I do in that aspect is from me experimenting with things when I have free time. I do actually help my students learn a lot of these skills while at the Academy—it is part of my “hidden curriculum.” But, no, I am not really interested in teaching those types of courses.
Interviewer: Do you do any other teaching work?
Ananda: I’ve recently been recruited to teach writing to the DHAN Development Professional Programme participants. I have also done some communications courses for some of the short-duration programmes and so on. I’ve also been teaching some of my colleagues at the Academy in the Asian Centre for Skill and Knowledge on Micro Insurance (ASKMI) about how to conduct online courses.
Interviewer: Well, thank you for your time today. Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Ananda: Not really. Anything else you would like to ask?
Interviewer: Actually, there is one question. Why did you decide to use this schizophrenic interview format instead of writing a normal report?
Ananda: I don’t know. I’m just a little bit strange….