My first day at work was unremarkable. My boss had welcomed me warmly to the team and told me to go through the existing titles of English literature school books to ‘acquaint’ myself with the content and style. “Take it easy,” she said. “Before you know it, the madness will descend.”
‘What madness?’ I wondered, flipping lazily through the textbooks, gazing at them. Nothing caught my eye. There were a group of nice stories and poems, followed by comprehension and skill development exercises. That was all that there was.
It was fairly simple and straightforward.
So, when I was assigned to search for texts for the English books in my first project, I immediately sent in a few excerpts from Huckleberry Finn and a poem by Alfred Noyes. All of them were rejected. My boss explained that violence was prominent in all the pieces. The portrayal could incite children to fights or other violent acts. In addition, the racist nicknames in Huck Finn would encourage them to employ similar nicknames for friends. “These are very young children,” my boss told me. “We need to be very careful about what we expose them to.”
I was flabbergasted.
I was being naïve, of course. I had presumed that the beguiling cuteness of most children’s literature would invisibilise the implicit structures of power in the text. But in school, I thought in retrospect, I had known of quite a few kids who were bullied because of their physical appearance. I also knew that the source of the nickname they were ascribed was a popular Enid Blyton series, apparently one of the most innocent and feel-good of children’s literature recommendations.
The literary world before me seemed to shrink.
There were very few texts that could genuinely live up to these standards. So, if we wanted to use ones that didn’t, we would have to try and sanitise the texts as far as possible, and omit, what we call, ‘perspective issues’. These include violence, gendered roles, racial or communal stereotyping, deliberate acts of unkindness, and so on.
But these markers are not always explicit. In some cases, they are so cleverly camouflaged that one can only find them if one is looking for them. But they are there, nonetheless, and they influence our perception of the world around us in very subtle and sure ways. So, if a book is peppered with variations of the sentence ‘Mother is cooking’, the readers begin to identify this as the norm.
This does not just happen through the written word.
In one of our training sessions, our trainer showed us certain illustrations and asked us to comment about the problems in them, if any. One of them showed a busy marketplace, and the other depicted a scene in a park. We thought both were absolutely fine, until she drew our attention to the headgears sported by certain characters in the illustrations–fruit sellers wore skull caps in the first illustration; in the second, a particularly corpulent gentleman wore a turban. “What do we mean when we portray characters with unnecessary communal overtones like this?” she asked us. “What message are we sending?”
Evidently, we were too deeply entrenched in the narrative of communal stereotyping ourselves to detect this, despite our rigorous professional training. We were also guilty of downplaying the potential of school textbook illustrations as media for perpetuating stereotypes. So, where we would pore over the texts for hours and edit out problematic sections promptly, we only glanced cursorily at illustrations and let them pass, as long as they looked vibrant and matched the brief we sent to illustrators.
We drafted artwork briefs with greater care henceforth, and got illustrations corrected to reflect a very neutrally dressed population. For me at least, it served as a very grim reminder of Amitav Ghosh’s pronouncement on ‘an Indian’s fear of symbols’.
This problem also haunts the Social Sciences, perhaps to an even greater extent. I know of an instance where an illustration of a popular freedom fighter, taken from the public domain, incited a severe backlash. The illustration depicted the person (a woman) with a hookah in her hand. It was taken as proof of irreverence and a deliberate attempt to tarnish her image in public. Editors were frightened enough to try to replace the image from the next reprints, and have been extremely vigilant ever since. So, if totally non-controversial photographs are unavailable on public domain, they commission illustrations in-house.
This is in addition to checking their sources continuously to ensure accuracy and employing a deliberately cautious language to pre-empt communal appropriation or controversy. While the problem is more acute in case of maps (especially with regards to the international boundaries), using the correct terminology is also crucial, so much so that some editors lost quite a bit of sleep over an apt title to ascribe to Akbar, the Mughal ruler. They needed to chance upon one which would not amount to courting trouble, or inflaming tempers.
‘Madness’, of course, was an understatement.
I have also realised that the much critiqued objective tone in Social Sciences textbooks is not an arbitrary editorial judgement. It is a well-thought-out stance borne of an aim to minimise distractions and focus on the facts alone.
While discussing an episode like the Battle of Haldighati, therefore, most editors do not draw attention to the communal identities of the warring factions. Doing so would put a wrong spin on the event and distract the students’ attention from the episode. It would also actively mislead them and fan communal tensions even within the classroom where a student from a Muslim household could be ostracised for the role played by his supposed ancestors in defeating a local hero. Where the original intent of the lesson was to teach them facts, we would end up with gross and anachronistic distortions with unintended real-life implications.
On the other hand, this also means that Social Science textbooks often do not actively criticise the structures of power or analyse the necessity of social movements. Regulated by curriculum mandates and potential public outrage (both of which reflect, to some extent, the ideologies of the governments in power), the room for such commentary is virtually non-existent.
And so it continues.
I am no longer very certain that my work is straightforward. Or that texts and textbooks are innocent objects that are simply meant to delight little children and help them pass exams. But I have got better at scrubbing away till the world inside the final books is squeaky clean. And at suppressing my wicked day-dreams of portraying the unequal beauty of an unedited text.
But I still slip in a line or two to nudge the students to recognise the problems around them, and help them come up with suggestions. In one unit for instance, I deliberately introduced a picture of animals in cages in pet shops, and asked students to discuss why they should adopt animals instead of visiting these shops. In another, I instructed them to document the different kinds of families they see around them. This is to make them see for themselves that there is no single normative ‘correct’ version which can be held up to judge and ridicule other, more different looking ones. I keep hoping that one of these will latch onto the children’s minds and help them be better people than us.
Textbooks must and should help children develop a sociopolitical conscience. Till we can do that explicitly and fearlessly, the world inside our books remains, for good or for worse, an unbelievably ideal one.