Jackfruit Justice

A Fictionalised Adaptation of “Haroun-al-Rashid-er Bipod”

Note: The preceding comic strip is a fictionalised graphic adaptation of a part of the short story called “Haroun-Al-Rashid-er Bipod” (The Plight of Haroun-al-Rashid) written by Bibhutibhusan Bandopadhyay in 1945. It tells the hilarious story of Haroun and Abul, two first generation learners from Janipur village, who have to travel 2 miles everyday early in the morning to reach their school. None in their family or among their neighbours have had access to formal education — there are no schools in the Muslim majority villages in this part of the state. Haroun and Abul are stereotypical back benchers; their uniforms are not exactly spic and span after walking by lakes, fields and bamboo-plantations, and nor are they academically sound. Moreover, with them being always late to class, they are perpetually subjected to the punishing cane.

However, they do learn and imbibe other important lessons because of their experience. The rules of the school may be rigid and uniform for everyone, but one can always wriggle one’s way out of punishment by bringing little gifts like fruits and vegetables for the teachers. They also learn that only sarkari trees are safe to be climbed, and that fruits from these trees can be taken and enjoyed by anyone. On good days, gifts like these may also help them go the extra mile, earning them a seat in the first bench. After all, school rules apply only when they are applied by the teacher. 

In the Bengali adolescent school story tradition, there are many examples like this, which employ humour to satirise social injustices and systemic inequalities. For readers of Bangla, here is the link to access the anthology Iskuler Golpo where this story can be found. The volume is an interesting collection of school stories in Bangla as they have evolved throughout the years. 

“The Plight of Haroun-al-Rashid” was written in 1945. The world is a different place now. There are more schools; there is more access to education. The more things change though, the more they remain the same:”Lack of Schools in Muslim-Majority West Bengal is by Design, not Chance”.

Artist Bio

Hailing from Kolkata, Ahona Das has done her graduation in English from Presidency University. She is currently pursuing her post-graduation from The Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. There are a few things in life that she holds dear: the refuge of books, the resilience of friendships and anything that makes her feel alive. She is also the co founder of the online journal Birdhouse Poetrywatch. She resorts to art and literature to keep from going insane. When not in the Birdhouse, she prefers to rest under solitary skies. 

Mapping the Journey of Being a Teacher

After a brief hiatus of one and half years; a phase that I now recollect as a sabbatical from the world of higher academia, I finally enrolled myself in a B.Ed course in one of the most reputed colleges in Kolkata. Owing to the pressure from the larger societal norms of doing something ‘productive’, catering to, in fact specific demands of having a ‘stable job’, accompanied with my own frustration of lacking ‘permanency’ and inability to crack the monstrous other, aka ‘NET’, I, finally succumbed to enter a vocational course that would not only help me secure a respectable job and financial independence but also a world so pristine in its claim of fulfilling the ‘overall/holistic development of a child’. Except, that it was not.

The allure of being deemed as respectable has its own drawbacks, a fact which I was oblivious to and at the same time acquainted through the idea and culture of ‘ Bengali Bhadrolok’. Over ages, teaching has been widely viewed as a prestigious job, although lacking the glamour and cool quotient that is often associated with other professions. Imagine the archetypal image of the ‘Mastermoshai’ widely pervading our imagination fuelled by mainstream media and popular culture. What the picture immediately brings before us is a simpleton, probably belonging to the middle class and often austere in outlook. Now, one might dismiss this image as probably a cliché and in fact outdated, except for the fact that even today holding up to a certain image of ‘simplicity’ and ‘decency’ is sacrosanct to the profession. I recall that even as a child studying in an all girls missionary school, some of the behaviours like shaking your shoulders while laughing or sitting with your legs stretched seemed highly inappropriate. Undeniably, body languages and gestures have their own semiotics and is rooted in the way they shape our personality, but what felt as problematic was labelling it as ‘un-lady like’ (reinforcing the idea that gender is performative). At a time, when schools are making it imperative to impart ‘sex education’ to school children, it is almost farcical to see how even today, in many schools it is mandatory for female teachers to wear a ‘dupatta’ to retain the sense of ‘decency’, thus reinforcing our un-comfortability as a nation with the woman’s body.

The centrality of this respectable and decent image has an underlying gender discourse that is often overlooked. Firstly, the fact, that it is women  who hold a higher ratio compared to men when it comes to teaching in general and teaching humanities in particular; a fact that became visible when I, myself enrolled for this course. There were hardly ten boys in a class of one hundred students in total that often led to labelling them as ‘minorities’ in simple jest. 

Secondly, the idea of a hetero-normative discourse even in child pedagogy was baffling. I remember an incident when one of the professors told us to our amazement that a ‘homo-erotic’ relationship was ‘unnatural’ in the adolescent stage. Luckily, a counter argument was voiced by a small group of trainee teachers which startled him a bit and he finally dodged the topic diplomatically by scheduling the argument for the next semester. If this happened to be the premise for creating future teachers, I wondered what was professed and practiced in the schools. Not to my surprise, this hunch got re-affirmed when I went for an internship in one of the popular schools in the city as part of my B.Ed training. I remember this incident when I was asked to ‘observe’ a class. Now, it so happened that one of the boys in the tenth standard was mumbling an answer and was slightly standing in a tilted position, when all of a sudden the male teacher reprimanded him saying, “If you are a man, then stand straight.” I don’t want to assume that he was a stereotypical teacher with lack of awareness about gender studies, but this off handed remark about ‘manhood’ shows these stereotypes exists in our imagination, even though displayed very subtly.

The perennial discourse surrounding the idea of a perfect teacher, in fact is even historically speaking, problematic. Starting with the ‘Gurukul’ system, which was casteist and sexist in its structure as it provided scope of learning to children of higher caste and only catering to the male child. Of course one would argue that post RTE Act (2009) and the introduction of mid-day meal, the system of inclusion and the goal of equality in terms of education has reached a wider spectrum, when in fact what it has done is glossing over the intricacies of caste, religion and gender politics under the garb of ‘education for all’ and widespread literacy. 

During my period as a B.Ed trainee teacher, we were introduced to a project known as ‘Vidyadeepam’ which was initiated by the department of education with the aim of teaching the under-privileged children of schools ‘X’ and ‘Y’ in the sub-urban regions of Nepalgunj and Santragachi respectively. These schools were adopted by our college and as future teachers; this was introduced in our curriculum to make us morally aware of not only our social responsibilities but also to make us acutely aware of the social scenario prevailing at the grass-root level.

 Even if we blatantly dismiss the Evangelist mission behind such an undertaking and look at the ‘larger picture’, the discrepancies and loopholes became evident in hindsight. When we visited those children once every month after a journey of almost one and a half hours, the smile etched on their faces provided us a warm welcome. There wasn’t any strict methodology of teaching them because the main idea was to impart the joy of learning among the young learners. The possibility of having the mid-day meal was perhaps the only reason why the parents in fact send these kids to school, most of whom survived on ‘moori’ (puffed rice) for breakfast and as such there were often reported cases of young kids fainting due to dehydration and lack of proper nutrition. What has been observed from several studies is that many of the kids didn’t retain their interest to attend their classes post the mid-day meal. Another major debacle in the attempt for universal education was that despite such schemes being presented, their social condition hardly changed and were mostly trapped within the idea of what is called ‘culture of poverty’. Moreover, most of these children carried the baggage of social expectations, being acutely aware of their caste, class and religion. It would, in fact be preposterous to think that by simply making them stand every morning in a queue to sing the national anthem would change their social reality and bind them into a homogeneous unity.

There was this incident that I recall during my period of internship in the aforementioned school. A boy in the seventh standard who was generally known for his notoriety in class, once remarked in a tone that was hushed but audible enough, “Ma’am, have you done plastic surgery?”, a remark that automatically elicited peals of laughter in the class. Although initially, it was a kind of a shock, I made efforts to tell the class about the topic in a way that addressed the issues of body shaming and body image; a method which I believe was a bit helpful since by the end of the class, the boy came up to me and apologised without me actually asking for one. Later, I also realised that the boy was also subject to a sort of bully from his fellow classmates for having the surname ‘Majhi’. I believe that it had to do more with plain mischief and my reading too much of caste politics may be a bit erroneous.  However, these subtle points made me aware of the scenario that is often white washed to make us believe otherwise.

Undoubtedly, the task of a teacher as a flag bearer of society and in nourishing young minds is a laborious task, but neither the teacher nor the system is without their own set of biases and prejudices. Moreover, a system that manufactures teachers as a multi tasker is a system that believes in some sort of utopia, notwithstanding the in- congruencies that exists between theory and praxis of pedagogy. 

ImageSource: Colourbox.com

Author Note

Ayesha Begum has done her graduation and masters in English from Jamia Millia Islamia and Presidency University respectively. She is currently pursuing her B.Ed course from St. Xavier’s College, (Autonomous) Kolkata. She juggles between teaching kids and parenting a cat at home. Part time musing in her own solitary dreams and part time reading graphic novels and poems, she wants to pursue a full time course as a teacher and awaiting for her story to be told.

When a Child’s Faith is Shaken

Translator’s Note: The article was originally published in Bangla in Anandabazar Patrika on 27th October, 2015. It was translated by the Delek Team and published with the author’s permission. This is a completely true incident.

Father and Son are watching Salman’s Khan’s new commercially successful film on TV. In one of the scenes, a few aggressive men wearing saffron turbans enter the Pakistani Embassy and start vandalizing random property. Immediately, the 10 year old son jumps off the sofa and began screaming: “Beat those Pakistanis up, beat them bad”. His father is a Muslim man and a professor by profession; he has named his son after a Vedic saint. Initially taken aback by his son’s reaction, he gets to know after enquiring that when this very film was shown in his school, a few boys had become similarly agitated and shown hostility towards the Pakistanis on screen. The man tries to explain to his son that despite political conflicts, Pakistan is also just another country, the people there are not our enemies. However, he remains troubled by this incident.

The doubt is cleared in a couple of days. The son reveals that many of his friends in school have been teasing him by calling him a Pakistani. They shout “Hey look, a Muslim, a Pakistani” at him as he passes by. Speechless, the man tries to make sense of this—this is one of the most famous convent schools in Kolkata; most students here come from educated middle class or upper middle class families. How does such vile sentiment enter the minds of the school’s young pupils, marring the tireless efforts of the school administration? Why should a ten year old have to deal with such animosity just because of his religious identity? As he tries to grapple with these thoughts, they evoke a few fragmented memories from his adolescence. This was the 80s. An India-Pakistan cricket match was on. Every time Pakistan lost a wicket, he shouted in glee. The feeling of triumph was less on account of his love for cricket, and more to show that he felt a sense of belongingness and loyalty for India. It’s been many years since then. He had not been able to rent a flat in a Hindu locality; when riots broke out in a another state far from here, neighbours had accumulated in front of his house spewing threats; while in university he was assigned in a room in a Muslim specific hostel though he opted to stay with everyone; once in his professional life his colleague had refused to eat with him after knowing of his identity. But all that should be in his past. In the current scenario, India has sent a mission to Mars, Polio has been completely eradicated, the prime minister has promised a bullet train to citizens. Women pilots are now employed in the air force.

Is it really all in the past? Or does the story of Muslims remaining outcastes in our society is an ever-present and relevant narrative? Hence a 10 year old has to try his might to prove that he too belongs. The apathy and the misidentification that had kept his father always at the margins of the mainstream, are more overtly polluting and rigid today. People die in this country today for allegedly consuming beef and their murderers are not brought to justice. A Muslim singer will get his show cancelled; books by Muslim publishers are banned. There is a systematic state effort to saffronise education. Our prime minister stays silent. The country, its society, and its families— all are in the grip of a terrible parochialism— the ‘other’ religion, the ‘other’ culture, the ‘other’ worldview can’t be tolerated. When the state mechanism itself fuels this culture of intolerance, the situation indeed becomes very worrying. There is a constant fear that with the state’s support or perhaps at its directive, organisations like the RSS are trying to propagate a majoritarian Hindutva ideology in India’s social, political and cultural realms. There is some hope when writers, artists and intellectuals talk about it. Some of them renounce their state awards to garner public consciousness about the larger picture connecting these events. However, their protests are also interpreted as political opportunism by this regime. If in this climate, a Class 4 student recognizes his classmate on the basis of his religion and discriminates against him, there’s nothing to be surprised about. It’s a symptom of the times we live in.

What can the man teach him in such a situation? He is quite helpless, like many other Muslims in these dark times. Should he tell his son to clutch on to his religious identity and associate only with people of his own community, so as to encourage a ghettoized lifestyle? After all, the question of Muslim development has always been tied to the issue of such a narrow communal insularity. The same has been politicized by the Right, the Left and the Centrist parties. The quick reactionary response to the overtly hostile Hindu Fundamentalism that is growing in the Muslim-majority areas of the State, is growing from this anti-progressive ghettoized sensibility. The politics of violence multiplies and hate competes with hate. Should this man accept such politics as the only way of survival? Or would he do what he has always done till now—talk to his son about an India which had grown out of diversity, a narrative which is both guided by and described by our constitution?

Durga Pujo is over. Like every time, this year too, this child is celebrating this festival of all Bengalis. However, as he participates in the festivities, is there a voice in the midst of this mirth, who had whispered to him, how he is an outsider and a trespasser in these traditions? Maybe his father would now teach him with even more conviction, the story of this eternal land, which has been a refuge to many, where all opinions, all languages, all religions, all castes and creed are welcome with equal love. But would his son believe in this story of his eternal country, after being discriminated against unnecessarily?

Author Bio

Dr. Tajuddin Ahmed is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Aliah University, Kolkata.

Back Benchers

A Comic

Artist Bio

Shreya Prasad is a student of literature with a master’s degree from Jawaharlal Nehru University. She is a nervous ball of energy who finds peace in colours and words. She recently exhibited her artworks in a conference at JNU and she now divides her time between teaching and her art page, @a_corner_of_my_own

Two Stories

Image Source: Dailymail

Author Note: Both the stories here are based on experiences I’ve had within higher educational spaces. However, the dominant caste biases that I present in the stories inform conversations on teaching and assessment practices in schools as well. Discriminatory notions of merit and entitlement shape a large part of schooling discourse, which frequently get bolstered in higher educational contexts. For me, university life has been politically contradictory. On the one hand, I have experienced it as a space which is essentially designed to mobilise dominant caste, upper-middle class men like me. On the other hand, it has frequently facilitated encounters and conversations which produced moments of critical learning about the problems with my ways of seeing and being. These conversations can be messy and difficult, but they potentially reorient assumptions shaping our actions within educational spaces, as teachers and students. A lot, of course, depends on whether we are listening without feeling defensive, allowing the harsh truth to break through the ramparts of self-preservation. Here are two such conversations. 

1

‘How dare he?’ 

The words abruptly floated to my ears as I approached the two of them, grimly staring at each other. 

‘Hey. What’s up? Did you order chai?’ 

Neither seemed particularly enthused by my presence. 

‘Sorry. Something happened?’ 

P turned his head with slight disgust and enunciated each syllable with sinister emphasis: ‘A student accused K of being casteist.’ 

K turned her head towards me, almost in dramatic slow motion, and locked her eyes on mine. Two expectant, indignant faces bearing down upon me, their breath filling up the harsh stillness in the air. What was I supposed to do? Empathise? Show outrage? Be visibly upset at the seeming unfairness of the situation? Unfair for whom? Why would the student say this, what could K have done? 

‘What happened?’, I asked, in the neutral-est tone I could summon. 

She looked away, disappointed. P picked up the thread: ‘The student got a bad grade…he hardly attended classes and didn’t deserve a better grade. And that guy has the gall to doubt her grading? He just came to her and announced that he deserved a better grade. What an asshole. And then when she said she can’t, he said she was being casteist. What the hell! We can’t tolerate students doing whatever the fuck they feel. This was a threat, he actually threatened her…’ 

My eyes flicked to K for a second, she was intently staring into space. A mixture of disappointment and doubt began to course through me. I suddenly realised I didn’t know her too well, and I definitely didn’t have much insight into her teaching persona, but somehow I wanted to believe that her response would not be merely defensive, merely protecting her institutional authority. It would definitely not be abusive, I hoped. 

‘…and also this entire conversation on caste is going in the wrong direction. It’s actually making students victimise themselves even more’ 

P had found an excuse to legitimately rant about his deep-seated resentments—a tendency he would suppress in the progressive, ‘politically correct’, albeit dominant-caste, circles he inhabited yet felt secretly discomfited by. He sought opportunities to express what he really felt. It was wrong to discount his feelings, he felt undermined and ‘cancelled’, he’d reveal in drunken fits sometimes. 

A slew of questions were prickling my brain. I had to ask them in a manner that would facilitate a meaningful conversation. It could easily end badly; but the consequences of not having this conversation were worse. Yes, there would inevitably be complexity in the story, K might have been vulnerable in some ways too, but each aspect of the story, the experience, needed to be worked through. ‘Listen, K, I don’t want you to feel defensive…’

Questions: 

Do you explain and demonstrate your grading criteria? Are you familiar with the literature on grading biases and how they may influence your choices/practices? Do you think your teaching and assignment-setting was able to prepare the student adequately? 

Do you enquire into why the student may be missing classes, or if and how they struggle with the course? Do you try to understand the student’s context? How do you understand  differences between students? Do you give the student space to present critical opinions of your course? Do you question and probe your own authority, vantage-point, certainties about teaching and evaluation? 

Have you read up on accounts of caste-based and other forms of discrimination in educational spaces? Do you understand the inter-relations of the academic, socio-economic, and cultural in how discrimination operates? Do you understand the magnitude and consequences of disparity in educational outcomes? If you do not know or understand, do you seek to know or understand? If you know or understand, what do you do about it? 

Deep down, what do you really feel? Is that right? 

A warm presence greets me when I enter the room. She is surrounded by a few students, who she’s helping out with a project. Introductions and smiles follow, and I wait till the students leave. She is middle-aged, calm, and seems to carry an overall no-nonsense attitude about her. We begin the discussion, I take out my notebook. She tells me about the discrimination she experienced within the department as a new faculty member, the culturally alienating conversations she had to endure, the obliviousness and unchanged prejudices of many of the ‘celebrated’ senior faculty members. She tells me about how she felt more empowered owing to her engagement within the anti-caste movement but how many Dalit teachers in various educational institutes are struggling, subject to the meritocratic, insensitive taunts of students, teachers, and administrators. She tells me stories of so-called ‘good’ upper-caste professors subjecting students to suicides that never made the news. She tells me about how she has been considered as an ‘uncivil’ presence since she points out problems starkly, a tendency that many academics do not react well to since they would rather couch and disguise the truth in deliberate sophistry. She mentions how marginal caste students, including the ones I just met, are excluded from all kinds of student decision-making and participation in cultural initiatives. She tells me how she works with those students on their writing, to ensure they get a better grade but other faculty members continue to grade them badly, although their writing seems perfectly alright. 

I look up from my notes since I experience a sudden unexpected discomfort. I can imagine the problematic biases of certain faculty members, the valuation of aesthetic gloss over the quality of content, but a part of me feels doubtful too. 

‘So, I want to understand something….there’s obviously bias in how students are being graded, but…shouldn’t there also be a conversation on standards? Grade inflation without developing justifiable criteria could be a problem too right? Also, while grading language is tricky given how subjective it is…but clarity and effectiveness of communication is also dependent on word choice, grammar…I mean those things should be worked on and developed rather than being impersonally graded, but we will need criteria and standards? Do you think it makes sense to also develop alternative standards…’ 

I trail off noticing a fierce sharpness in her gaze. She replies clearly and firmly: ‘The university is an agrahara. All existing standards must be abolished before we can create new ones.’ 

‘Yes, I….’ I trail off again, suddenly lost in the shadowy facade of my own thought, intimidated by the clarity of hers. People like me mostly design and re-design evaluation systems, conceptualising ‘fairness’ within normative frames, never fundamentally questioning the societal basis of the system itself, never fundamentally understanding the experience of being constantly, endlessly de-graded. 

She tells me a little more about her everyday teaching experiences. We discuss the role of classroom teaching in combating the sense of exclusion and isolation. Our conversation finally draws to a close. I get up, thank her for her time; she wishes me well for my research project.

Author Bio

Sayan Chaudhuri is currently pursuing a PhD in the Centre for English Studies at JNU. His research work studies the framing of English Studies in post-liberalization India, with particular emphasis on how pedagogic practices negotiate with institutional codifications of the discipline. He also teaches a course titled ‘Education, Literacy, and Justice’ as part of the Critical Writing program at the Young India Fellowship.

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