Tale of a story teller

By Subir Shukla on May 12, 2019

In the beginning was the thought

Sometimes one’s naivete can produce the strangest of results. Mine brought me to use the spoken and written word with children in contexts where this is sometimes the only difference between worthwhile education or the lack of it.

The story really begins in the early 80s when a group of friends and I were fired by a certain indignant (and dare I say right­eous?) spirit. Just about everything seemed to be wrong with our country. To have eyes and to be able to see, we said, is almost a curse. For all that you see around you is poverty, corruption, exploitation suffering helplessness…. Education, we felt, was the one basic way any long-lasting change could come about.

Efforts towards this however had to wait a bit. After all, we had to complete our own education! Yet the idea stayed and once through university we got down seriously to exploring the possibilities of work in the field of primary education, particularly for the poorest sections of our society.

The almost immediate problem was the lack of field exposure as well as an eager (almost impatient) readiness to implant a pre­-conceived model on to reality. It was as if we had the solutions in our mind already and were looking for problems! Also, it was as if setting up one’s own organisation to do this work was almost more important that doing the work itself. Consequence – in a few months’ time I had joined an NGO – Eklavya, Institute for Educa­tional Research and Innovative Action. This was a group that had been intervening in the government school system, evolving science and social science teaching programmes for middle schools on a micro scale for later macro implementation.

Thus it was that between the years 1986 and 1992 I worked in a project seeking to evolve child-centred activity-based primary education for the govt. school system especially in the context of rural areas and small-town environments. The children attend­ing these schools came by and large from the poorer and marginalised sections of society. The area in which I chose to work (block Shahpur district Betul Madhya Pradesh) has mainly remote villages and is populated by the Gond and Korku tribes, Sched­uled C aste Hindus as well as caste Hindus (the ‘non-backwards’). The nearest towns – 35 and 50 kms. respectively. The terrain is hilly as well as rocky and has thick deciduous forests. People are dependent on forests for many needs and forest produce is a major source of income. Such agriculture exists is mostly at the subsistence level.

Having started from the belief that simply putting the right kind of education everywhere would change the very course of India it took only a few weeks to realise that no one had a clue as to what this right kind of education really is. It was easy to criticise but very difficult to evolve a viable alternative that would actually function in our circumstances. In a sense then the quest became one of finding the answer to this very question. It is experiences from this search that I would like to share in this paper. And rather than spread myself thin may I focus on just one aspect – generating a children’s literature that actually works.

But first, what does it mean for a child to come to school?

Coming to school

One day I was approached by a 14-year old boy. A year ago, he said, he had lost his father, a landless labourer. And now, as the eldest son in the family responsibility lay on him. Apart from him there was his mother and two younger brothers. Together, they had decided that the three of them would work hard and ensure that at least the youngest child acquired some education. “So please admit him massaaab,” he said.

Actually this was not really an incident out of the ordinary. Behind the presence of almost every child in the school there seemed to lie a similar decision-making process. Can the child be spared from herding cattle or cooking or working in the fields or looking after siblings? Is there any money to spare for notebooks and textbooks (some of them worth two or three days’ wages)? And what if the teacher doesn’t teach regularly or doesn’t teach well – wouldn’t that be a waste?

Not that it is always possible for a family to keep to this decision. In my first effort to round up children from the vil­lage during a post-monsoon reduction in attendance I came across a truant sitting near the door of his hut. “Aha! there you are.” And there he was, sitting next to a form lying on the ground covered with a crumpled sheet – his father. The man had been ill and unable to work for the last week. Money had dried out and the whole family had not eaten for a few days. His wife had gone to see if she could arrange for something . . . and I had come to call his child to school.

That was the last such round I made. What amazed me though was that the child resumed coming to school after a few days. Despite such a heavy investment required, it is astonishing how many children from an extremely deprived background still attend school for the amount of time they do.

Yet, what is the sort of school these children get to attend?

School shock

Here you are then on your first visit to a typical school.

A forty-minute cycle ride over a stony track across three streams and a hillock has got you to the village. Your immediate concern is, of course, the building. A yellowish-brown affair, it’s about the size of a small drawing-room, but you needn’t feel cramped as there are many ‘openings.’ The windows and an odd door is missing from the frame; the slanting roof might be about to fall, and gaps and cracks in its ancient tiles give an open invitation to the monsoon. The kaccha floor, somewhat undulating, is covered by a few strips of sackcloth.

Occupying this small room are about 70 children comprising classes 1 2 and 3, ranging in age from two and a half to ten. Any child who impulsively stretches her or his hand is likely to knock over a couple of classmates.

But never mind these things you are tempted to say. Let’s do something on the blackboard. The board? Where ­ on ­ earth ­ is ­ the ­ blackboard? Oh there’s only one in the school and that is being used for class 5. Not that it would have made much difference anyway for a large number of children(a little more than half) don’t have a slate or notebooks or even books.

So what do they do in school?

You look at the children carefully as they sit huddled, afraid, flinching away as you go near them. The state of their clothes makes you wonder what these children do in winter when it gets biting cold. (Answer – they huddle together for warmth, try to light a bonfire if possible and are too cold to do anything else. Educational activity – nil.)

Many children have come to the school already hungry two hours ago and almost all are getting restive with hunger. A thwack! from the teacher’s new flexible stick lands on the table and the herd straightens immediately.

Having just spat out his paan the teacher hastens to tell you: what can one man do with such a mob except keep it under control? And anyway, sir, you know how difficult it is, this being an “interial” area. These adivaasis and dehatis can’t even speak hindi. Really backward, these people. Very difficult to teach them!

In an effort to stop the diatribe you pick up a book. It is a primer which has the alphabet and a picture for each letter. To begin with is the picture of a pineapple which none of the children have ever seen. Then there is a ‘house’ visually defined as a two-storied structure topped by a TV antenna and with a scooter parked outside – probably children are expected to realise that what they live in are not houses or homes but huts. Similarly, where a woman is shown she is fair and bedecked in jewellery, ensuring that these tribal children would be hard put to think of their mothers as real ‘women’.

“But why don’t you carry on with whatever it is that you are teaching,” you suggest to the teacher. “I was just doing some tables you know. Acchhaa chalo sab log pahada karo,” he barks suddenly(All right everyone get on with your tables). A favoured-looking boy stands up and screams in a sing-song voice – Do ekam do-oo – and before you can realise what is happening, 70 voices scream after him, do eekam do-oo.

Shouting above the din you ask the teacher, “Can your children read?” “Of course they can. I’ll just show you. Lalita, come here.” Lalita comes. “Take out lesson 3 and read it.” Lalita obliges and begins droning in a sing-song voice of her own, oblivious of the 69-voice din behind her. “But she isn’t even looking at the book,”you protest,”in fact she’s holding it upside down!¢

“Ha!”says the teacher and clicks his fingers,”That just goes to show.”

“Show what?”

“How well she knows her lesson, of course!”

What does a school such as this achieve?

What schools such as these (and unfortunately an overwhelming number of schools are not very different from this) do is to generate a lack of confidence in the school-going child, a kind of fearful fawning behaviour towards adults and a general reluctance to explore the world around her. Large periods of inactivity in a cramped classroom dominate the school day of the student and keeping quiet under fear of retribution is what the

school-going child learns.

For teachers of course children are ‘clay to be moulded by the potter’ or ’empty vessels to be filled by the teacher.’ Rote learning without understanding or thinking generates in children

a distaste for learning as well as the belief that much of what books say is beyond their reach. The ‘better’ ones acquire the skill to memorise and regurgitate when required. A large majority, who often drops out, is considered by their teachers to be not good enough even as empty vessels.

In many areas class and caste factors too colour the teacher’s behaviour towards the students. Often the teacher belongs to a different class or caste from the majority of the children and looks down upon them as being ‘lower’ as belonging to a community generally incapable of learning, hence not really fit to be educated. It is also rather difficult for the teacher to ever refer to ‘children’ – instead he can always be heard referring to ‘boys’ even when half the student population comprises of girls.

If even all this “fails” to convince children that something is wrong with them or their culture, the content of the curriculum and the nature of the textbooks will clinch the issue. Couched in a language to which children do not have access these textbooks provide information about a world to which children have no access. The fact that the presentation is dull and dense makes the easiest of such texts entirely incomprehensible. On the occasions when the world familiar to children is included it is often treated superficially or, worse still, condescendingly and derogatively. For example talking of the Gond tribe (for whom mahua liquor and its consumption has social significance) a govt. textbook which is also read by Gondi children lamentsthat these tribals have the ‘bad habit’ of drinking and hence are not able to achieve ‘development’.

Of course all this is affected by what is considered to be ‘development’. In 1986, the year I began work, I was informed by the Block Development Officer(in charge of development work in 100 villages) that it is “very difficult to work for the development of these tribals. They don’t want fridge, they don’t want TV, they don’t want their sons to become govt. clerks! So how we can develop them?”

What are children really like?

Far from being tabula rasas or clay to be moulded by the potter, children bring to school a wealth of knowledge and a variety of experience. Going out with children as they take cattle to the jungle for grazing or observing them cooking or tending to a vegetable patch, one is compelled to acknowledge the range of information, understanding and skill they already possess. It is possible for them for instance to name over 14 trees that have thorns (ask a college student to do the same) or to look at a pile of rope and say whether or not it will reach the water in the well or to be able to spot a scorpion’s hole and tell you whether the scorpion is inside. Here’s a treasure then for any teacher or curriculum designer to capitalise on.

Far from doing this textbook writers and teachers alike seem to proceed on the assumption that children are moronic. An eight-year old girl often comes to school having cooked for the whole family; a ten-year old boy is considered responsible enough to take a bullock cart fifteen kilometres across the jungle to purchase grass; a small group of these children will often repair the school, re-do the floor with dung and mud, whitewash the

walls and re-set the roof tiles – yet these very children are deplored as imbeciles the moment the teacher starts ‘educational’ activity in the classroom. No wonder then that capable, responsible children become helpless and passive in the classroom.

Fluid reality

At the same time what is done in the classroom (that is if it has to be done in a joyful and participative manner) is also affected by children’s cognitive levels and world view. It is for ,instance, not a good idea to force children to cram numbers till hundred in class 1 when they are cognitively not ready for it. This came home to me during a story-telling session when all of us in the classroom were talking of an old, old woman. All of us doddering and going around with really bent backs like a class of hundred-year olds. When I asked children how old they thought the old woman was, most of the children shouted – massaab, ten years old, no massab twelve years old. Only one child reached the large figure of twenty-two.

Children do see things differently from adults. For them a tree is not just a tree ­­ it could be a fort, a horse, a palace, a look-out post on a tower, a hill they’re climbing, a truck they’re driving with a noisy engine….It is this capacity to invest an imagined reality on to mundane objects and experiences of daily life that can again be capitalised by teachers. One of the longest sustained discussions I have ever had with young children has been on a blank page – with all us being able to spot all kinds of exciting, interesting things happening on the page and sometimes even seeing the same thing and extending each other’s ‘vision’. It was also one of those discussions where even the most reticent child took part as there was no possibility of being wrong!

The innovator falls in the trap

For all that I’ve written above I must confess that it is not as if I have always been able to seen things from children’s point of view. One’s own conditioning and beliefs do interfere. This hit me rather strongly during one conversation with children about a year ago. I was discussing with them the story of a wolf and a dog. The dog, finding his undomesticated cousin looking rather emaciated, invites him to come over and live with him since his master feeds him well. But when the wolf sees that the dog has to live in a kennel and has even to be chained, he goes away saying that he prefers the freedom of the jungle to the food of bondage.

The questions and exercises after the story were geared to subtly supporting the wolf’s point of view. When I asked the class of 9-10-year-olds whether they agreed with the wolf, almost all of them felt that it was quite stupid on the wolf’s part to have refused food. It was only after I had obtusely defended the wolf for a few more minutes that I realised what I should have already known – here were children who had the freedom to run in the

jungle but knew full well what hunger really meant. . . .

And what kind of stories do textbooks contain?

Almost all the material Indian children get to read seems to have been written with the desire to force them into moulds of being good children (read ‘not troublesome to adults’), useful citizens and virtuous human beings. Here are some glimpses of what happens as a result.

One day I found my neighbour’s little daughter performing an experiment. Holding a large glass with a little water in it she was trying to put into it a handful of pebbles. I offered to help. “OK put them into the glass one by one,” she said. When I had finished the water was completely buried in a mass of pebbles. “How can anyone drink the water now?” she asked.

It was all very mysterious till I remembered the story I had read aloud from her textbook the night before of the clever crow, throwing pebble after pebble into a pot… till the water rose and he could drink it – one of the commonest stories in India and meant to teach all to be patient and resourceful. But this little experiment showed that the crow’s trick would not have worked after all! And to think that for years that crow had been a model of resourcefulness and patience to me!

This is hardly an isolated case I’m afraid. Would for instance anyone in their saner moments believe that a turtle, however steady, can run faster than a rabbit (another common tale teaching everyone that slow and steady wins the race? Oh it’s only a story, you know, says someone. However it is not the fantasy but the kind of inference drawn on its basis that is troubling. Merely because the rabbit slept this once does it mean that he will do so always¿ Shouldn’t the moral of the story actually be – slow and steady wins the race but only when the competitor is dumb enough to go to sleep instead of running?

In effect the idea almost seems to be to spoil the fun of stories and the joy of being a normal healthy child given to human strengths and failings like any adult. `Children! Greed is a very bad thing. Just how bad it is, let me show you by telling you a story.’ And there goes the fun, for after you have laughed at the stupidly greedy character it’s your turn to avoid being like him. Or else!

Often the story is made utterly subservient to the message – first the dictum to be imparted is thought of and then a supposedly entertaining story fabricated around it.

Stories that warn against such `bad things’ do so by trying to instill a fear of the consequences. The exhortatory brand of moral stories on the other hand seek to achieve their effect through example, especially from the lives of the `great’. The peculiar assumption here is that if you emulate great men (they’re almost always men) you will not only be ennobled but also come a step closer to being great yourself.

Through these shining examples then children are exhorted to always tell the truth no matter what, to be committed enough to walk miles or cross a river to get to school, austere enough to brave a severe winter, courageous enough to die for the country…. In short the thesis is that the path to greatness lies in taking virtue to its extreme. What a pity these stories don’t seem to be working – we would have been a nation populated by none but the great!

When literature becomes a vehicle for adults to project their ideas about how children should behave and be, most children who are the victims of this moralising stop sharing their world with adults for fear that it will not be endorsed by them. All children know from inside that such `good’ behaviour is not only impossible for them but is also dull enough to be somewhat unsporting. Hence every time the good child is invoked in a story listeners cannot but realise that they themselves are far from the ideal and are belying the adult’s expectation.

Unfortunately this gives rise to feelings of guilt and inadequacy in some children. Knowing that they can never be as good as the characters in the stories, many of them often become convinced early on in life that they are and will be mediocre. Gradually they stop taking initiative – in order not to fail they avoid entering a situation in the first place.

On the other side of the coin a large many children are also sharp enough to discover that grownups themselves don’t quite behave like achhey bachchey“ (good children). They see them telling lies, being greedy, fighting with each other, bullying children…

Growing a little older, children are aware that contrary to the black and white divisions the early stories showed, things are rather more grey. Sometimes, lying is actually necessary. Shamming often seems to get adults a lot of rewards. And it is not the good but the cunning who seem to flourish.

The simplistic views of early childhood literature just do not account for life as it is lived. In some children, who have been deeply affected by these tales, this discovery can produce conflicts. But for most others the path out is something that has become the hallmark of our society. They realise that things to be said are one and things to be done are another. That it is enough to pay lip service to values and virtue but to be `practical’ is to be something else altogether. Thus is born the mentality whereby to appear to be good is more important than being so. And as some would say more advantageous too.

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3 responses to "Tale of a story teller"

    Deepa Kilambi says:

    Subir, You tell it so well. As always, compelling reading.

    meeta virmani says:

    Insightful anecdotes of harsh realities.. Moving and inspiring! Thanks for this candid write-up of your experience, Subir Sir.

    Mini Narayanan says:

    Found the article very insightful. Thanks,

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