Nor was she helped by my chuckling fit when I came across the following exchange in (a mildly abridged version of) the Kipling story “How the Camel Got his Hump”:
“Does he say anything else?”Okay, forget that mental picture of the Djinn setting off to “humph” the camel. I’m not sure how the over-formal, old-world English prevalent elsewhere in the story is of much use to these kids, who are struggling with even basic words and sentence arrangements, and who will certainly not be using sentences that begin “Presently there came to him...” anytime in the future. Besides, what is a description like “howling desert” supposed to convey to a kid who hasn’t even been properly taught what “desert” means? (He might have heard the word “registaan” during a Hindi conversation, but he has no practical understanding of what such a place is like anyway. No wonder most of these kids have to reconcile themselves to rote-learning.)
“Only ‘Humph!’; and he won't plough,” said the Ox.
“Very good,” said the Djinn. “I'll humph him if you will kindly wait a minute.”
Flipping through this NCERT text-book, I was reminded of my conversations with the redoubtable Atiya Zaidi, publisher, Ratna Sagar, during our German trip last year. Among other things, Atiya spoke about the regressive attitudes in textbooks that provide children with their introduction to the world of reading. Here are some of her thoughts, which I had transcribed at the time (and partly used in this story for the Hindu’s Literary Review):
“There are still so many gender biases and stereotypes in children’s textbooks in India. When children are asked to draw a teacher, they reflexively draw a matronly woman dressed in a sari with hair in a bun; they wouldn’t think of drawing a young woman with short hair. When asked to draw a doctor, it’s always a man. In Mathematics problems a husband will always draw a higher salary than his wife, girls will always get fewer marks than boys. These things are rife in textbooks but nobody bothers; there is no official body as such that will point out these things.
“There’s a school textbook for class 7 that says ‘Ferozshah Tughlak, even though he was a Muslim, was a kind man.’. These guys get away with any nonsense. Ten years ago you wouldn’t have found any south Indian name in our textbooks – there were mostly north Indian Brahmannical names. Even today you won’t find a north-eastern name or an Oriya name. Imagine the conditioning effect this sort of thing has on children over the years. A sheltered child might not even know that it’s possible to be called Baruah, or that Mr Khan can speak English too. A textbook is such a potent weapon but we aren’t bothered.
“Moral-science books project God as a punitive, threatening person. I remember a cautionary story where a nurse reached the hospital late and a patient died, and the ‘moral’ of the story was that you should be on time or else ‘God will be angry with you’. The people who write these textbooks are stuck in a time-warp, they are simply doing what they’ve always been doing.”
“For a child a book is like a gospel,” Atiya noted afterwards, “If you try to correct him he says no no, my book says this.” Well, Abhilasha’s been experiencing some of that with these kids. The books are sacrosanct, even when they don’t understand a lot of what’s written in them.