Finding connection

He was in class VII and an active participant in the group of students I was training in effective public speaking. As part of the training, I had to give them some famous speeches to memorise and deliver. I wanted to pick Martin Luther King’s, ‘I have a Dream’, Obama’s, ‘Yes we can’, Nehru’s midnight hour speech… but something about my choice of speeches was not sitting well with me. All these were speeches that I wanted them to read but not necessarily what they would pick for themselves. This was a school in Greater Noida, some of the students were first generation learners, most of them were from non-English speaking backgrounds, and I had already over-heard some shocking views about caste comparisons and superiority. In a role play session before this, students playing soldiers were hell-bent on crushing the enemy – and the enemy was always Pakistan. 

At this point, Kanu Priya gently suggested using Vajpayee Ji’s speech. I reluctantly skimmed through the file of famous speeches she had shared, and then came across this fabulous speech which Vajpayee Ji delivered at the 12th SAARC summit at Islamabad. In his speech, he talked about the shared heritage between Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, about rising above our regional, religious and linguistic differences and to join hands for common good. He talked about the martyrs of 1857 and the sacrifices running up to the freedom in 1947 – How these men and women were all Indians whatever their religion or current citizenship. 

“The bonds of religion, language, ethnicity and culture which hold us together as a South Asian family are far more enduring than the relatively recent barriers of political prejudice that we have erected.”

After the student’s incredulity at Vajpayi Ji suggesting common ground with Pakistan, we sat about decoding the speech. Several words were marked for difficult vocabulary. Dictionaries and Google search was consulted. Meanings and importance of terms like fratricidal, common Heritage, cooperation ASEAN, European Union and Unity were discussed. Despite some reservations, we ended up agreeing on the common grounds that peaceful quiet glory is preferable to the loud, blood dipped glory of war. The speech was finally understood, learnt and ready to be excitedly delivered in the next  Spoken English class.  I am glad I chose this speech over others. It plugged right into the context the students were familiar with and building a discussion from that familiar starting point was easy. Other speeches, however clear in their intention, might have lost out on making that initial connection.

The student who was shocked at the idea of talking about Pakistan as a friend is bright, witty, carries a mischievous glint in his eyes and is an obvious class leader. He has the charm and personality to lead, but he is precariously balanced between becoming a mindless bully or an effective leader. The exposure he gets as he goes through his education can tilt the balance one way or the other.

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