“Children must be taught how to think, not what to think,” – Professor Margaret Mead
At the time this world renowned anthropologist shared her profound thoughts on childhood education, she was perhaps not familiar with our primitive education system. As I recall, thinking during that age used to be the domain of school teachers and family elders only. Children were not to question. They were only to listen and obey. If a child ever questioned his elders he or she — gender did not matter — was mouthy.
Like the children in the West, I did not start my education first stepping on the floor of any kindergarten. Actually the first time I heard the word “Montessori” was from Pandit Bihari Lal, a friend of my paternal grandfather. He told my dad that his nephew Raman was on his way to England to be trained in the “Montessori” system of teaching young children. For a long time the word did not mean much to me except that Raman was going far away on a ship to more education. I was not sure what the word meant to dad either.
Much later, when I came to know what Montessori teaching techniques meant, you could say I did not play with picture blocks, colour picture outlines with crayons or had story telling sessions with my teacher. I never fell down singing “ring around the roses, pocket full of poses…” The concept of learning and also having fun learning were mutually exclusive. To learn and laugh, giggle and have fun were money and time wasting concepts. Teaching meant control; not let your brain run wild.
I spent first twelve years of my childhood in Moradabad. I do not remember the official name of my Elementary School, or perhaps it did not have a name. We simply called it “Primary School.” It was situated on a private property, a portion of which was used by the City Municipal Board for schooling children and the rest was used as owner’s residence and his stable.
The up side of this location was that it was very close to my home. In fact, it was within a short walking distance, a perfect distance of twenty-minute for a child who preferred to walk home from school kicking pebbles along the way. The down side was that in order to enter the schoolyard we had to pass through a very dirty and stinky passageway of the street. I can never forget the large heap of feces mixed with ashes and garbage that the toilet cleaners used to dump right outside the school gate, to be picked up later and carried out on squeaky male buffalo carts.
We had to be extra careful going through that filth, especially during the rainy season when both the smell and sight of it used to become unbearable. Most of the time, the streets would flood making it impossible to see what we were stepping on. If accidentally we stepped on feces we were considered polluted. This meant we had to go back home, where someone had to wash us down from top to bottom right at the front door before we were allowed to enter the house and change into dry clothes.
As a protection against any accidental brush with a “polluted schoolmate” we used to literally cross our fingers by putting our index finger on top of the big finger to make an “antoyee” and create a magic barrier against any pollution.
Ours’ was a bi-faith co-ed school. Every day, before the learning started, we would line up to pray in two separate corners. The Hindus prayed to Bhagvan and Muslims to Allah. At the time it felt absolutely logical to pray to two separate powers looking over two different kinds of people.
The majority of the students were Hindus. Hindu and Muslim students sat separately on burlap mats and teachers in wooden chairs, but there were no separate classrooms or dividing walls. It was one big open hall. However, despite this equality in our sitting arrangements there were certain differences between the Hindu and Muslim groups. There were no girls on the Muslim side. The Hindu side did.
The Hindu students learned everything in Hindi written in deva-nagri script and the Muslims in Urdu, transcribed in Arabic. A Hindu teacher (guruji) taught the Hindu children and a Muslim teacher (maulvi sahib) taught the Muslim. Guruji came to school dressed in a collarless, long sleeved, loose fitting long shirt (kurata), white cotton dhoti in place of trousers and a white cap on his head, whereas, maulvi sahib came dressed in a long coat (achkan), tight fitting trousers and a black cap.
In those days, we practiced writing on a 16-inch long and 12-inch wide wooden board (takhti). The Hindu students washed, dried and coated it with black soot, whereas the Muslims coated it with yellow clay, the same stuff my neighbourhood aunty Moto had used on my body to sooth my skin irritation when I had chicken pox. Here, I would say that Muslim students had it easy, as the yellow clay was available in the market, whereas the black soot was not. We had to collect it from the lids of the propane lanterns and scrape it from the bottoms of woks and griddles after they were used on wood fire.
It was a daily grind to maintain a regular supply of soot. I always had to have a few steady suppliers of the black powder in case mom ran out of the stuff. I used to go to my grandma Bhabho or ask another neighbour, aunty Prem to scrape the black off the bottoms of their cooking pots before they scrubbed and washed them clean. Fortunately, my donors had no school going children. So, I had no competition in their homes.
The process of coating the wooden board was not easy either. The soot had to be enough in quantity to coat the writing board evenly, on both sides. Once the takhti was dry, we made its surface smooth by rubbing it with the bottom of a round bottle up and down. Then we wrote on it with a reed-pen by dipping it in a pot called, budaqqa filled with thick liquid of grayish-white clay. This deal with soot was never a clean exercise. Because we sat on the floor we had to rest our writing boards on our knees. That means, we returned home with black hands, black knees and black trousers.
Another problem we constantly encountered was how to dry our writing boards during the monsoon season when the sun would not shine for days. And then, if somehow we managed to dry them by putting them closer to the kitchen braziers, we worried about keeping them dry on our way to school, as our umbrellas were not big enough to cover us as well as the school-paraphernalia we lugged. Come to think of it, most of us did not even have umbrellas. We used big empty burlap wheat bags. We folded their corners back to fashion a hood and cape to cover our head. They did provide the necessary protection but then they used to become too heavy to mange.
From June to September was the peak monsoon season, when it rained the hardest. Getting ready to go to school during those four months used to be tough. Dragging yourself out of bed in cloudy-cool mornings, taking a quick bucket bath, eating a left over semi-fried roti with sugar and walking to school in damp clothes and soggy canvass shoes was dreadful. Fortunately, whenever we had a proverbial rain of “cats and dogs” the school authorities declared a “Rainy Day,” similar to a “Snow Day” in North America.
Guruji Bhookhan Saran had thick long moustache rolled behind his ears and long hair that he tied in a bun. He was a stumpy and scary looking man who carried a baton in his hand. He taught grade one to read, write and add and subtract. If we misspelled a word or failed to recall time tables he never seemed to have any qualms about slapping our face with his thick heavy hand or using his “instrument” on our hands or backs or hips to punish us. Teachers seemed licensed to apply brute force to ‘stimulate’ learning. If they were familiar with some other punitive methods I say they might have used them as a teaching technique.
He also kept a close eye on his students’ attendance. If a student was going to be absent his parents had to send him a note explaining his absence. The delivery person was to make sure that the note was given to him personally. If that did not happen, the teacher would “borrow” four stronger boys from grade five and send them over to the absentee’s home to inquire about his “well being.” Let me tell you, there were no escapes from those deputized sheriffs.
They would come to your house, search it and find you. If they assessed you healthy and ascertained that you were playing hooky, they took you back to school. Two of them would grab you by your arms and two by your feet and drag you back to school like a hog. Girls were lucky; they were never subjected to this humiliation.
We went to school six days a week, Monday through Saturday, though we enjoyed lot more holidays than children enjoy in Canada. We were given a day off for every festival of every faith. It was an equitable system.
In addition, once a year, Dipti-sahib (Inspector of Schools) came for inspection. The Inspector was always a “he” and his visits were never a surprise. We were always given a fair warning that on such and such a day we would have Dipti-sahib visiting our school. We were to look clean, look organized, and mind our manners. We were trained to stand up quietly, give him a policemen salute and then remain standing until ordered to sit down.
During the inspection, he moved from row to row; asked us to open our mouths and show him our teeth to prove that we brush them with neem twigs or clean them with tooth powder, regularly and show our fingernails that we keep them clean and clipped. He also looked at our hair to determine whether we wash them, oil and comb them regularly. On the day of his visits some children would really go overboard. They would show up with hair dripping in mustard oil and with thick black mascara applied to the lower lid of their eyes.
After his physical inspection Dipti-Sahib would randomly ask us a few questions from our text book and ask us to read passages and recite time tables. At the end, he would leave us with the rest of the day and the following day off.
We were also given a day off if a leader of the country, province or a benefactor of the school died. Between the religious holidays, inspection day, funeral days, Sundays and a six-week summer vacation to boot, I believe we did not do more than six months of schooling in an academic year. But who was hurting? And then, during those days the schools were also kept closed during communal rifts and riots, which were frequent during the pre and post partition of India.
Right from an early young age, I learned to play it safe — kept peacock feathers in my readers to receive the blessings of Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge for good memory and good grades, prayed to Lord Shiva for his compassion and to Lord Hanuman to insulate me from Bhookhan Saran’s baton. But despite my prayers I could not always escape it.
The day I feared most was the “Report-Card-Day, the 14th of May.” Bhookhan Saran had a custom he observed at the peril of some children. He would not release their report cards until each student brought him a rupee. Dad was fully aware of this practice, but he would not part with a rupee for Bhookhan Saran and Bhookhan Saran would not part with my report card without a rupee. But it was I, who suffered the stress and the humiliation in front of my class. Only after mom would spare me a rupee I would get home with a piece of paper though by that time, there would not be a sliver of joy left in my heart to feel promoted to the next level.
One day I overheard mom and dad talking about me. They sounded rather unhappy with my school progress and were talking about taking me out of my school and placing me in the private coaching school of Dina Nath. I had heard of Dina Nath. His reputation for being even tougher than Bhookhan Saran was known to children. I pled with mom and dad, but it seemed their minds were made up. I was not sure whether they were mad at me for wasting a rupee on my report card or they were disappointed in my lack of progress. I recall I spent that entire summer in fear.
One day, just a week before the end of the summer vacation, dad took me to the vegetable market. I thought we were going vegetable shopping. I felt good about our father-son-bonding-excursion. When we reached the market he stopped and started conversing with a sugar merchant. After a casual conversation dad asked him the way to the Dina Nath’s School. The merchant looked at me, smiled and directed dad to a narrow staircase behind his shop, “That would take you to his school.”
Although the summer vacation was still in progress his school was already open. It was not a school. It was a small room. I noticed a few children writing on their takhtis, and a few adding and subtracting on their slate boards with an abacus.
Compared to Bhookhan Saran, Dina Nath was much larger in size. He was taller, fatter and bald. Then, unlike Bhookhan Saran, who sat in a wooden chair, Dina Nath sat on the floor behind a wooden desk. His teaching tool not different than Bhukan Saran’s baton rested on the top of the desk. When I saw him, a shiver went down my spine.
Dina Nath and dad greeted each other warmly. It was hard to say who greeted whom first because they both invoked the name of Lord Rama, “Jay-Ram-ji-ki” almost simultaneously. Then they chatted about their families, and only after that ice-breaking-friendly-conversation dad came down to the business at hand.
“I have come to handover this boy in your charge. Previously he had been going to Bhookhan Saran but he was not making any progress with him. So, I have brought him to you. I am sure under your tutelage he would do better.”
I recall during his conversation dad never, even once, referred me by my name, and nor did Dina Nath ask what was my name as though I was a load of dirty laundry brought to Dina Nath’s Laundromat for cleaning.
“Let’s find out,” responded Dina Nath in a tone indicating, “Don’t you worry, Punditji! I have cleaned up hundreds of filthy loads like the one you have brought me.”
Then he gave me three tests in reading, writing and arithmetic. After a few minutes he looked at my work and pronounced, “Bhookhan Saran has done a poor job”, but he also assured dad that if he left me with him I would improve, beyond dad’s dreams.
Right then, one of his students not older that I was brought him his answers to arithmetic questions for checking. I did not know how many of them were wrong or what was wrong with them, but I cannot forget what I saw. Dina Nath grabbed that thick baton off his desk and hit the child on his shoulder. The child doubled over with pain and fell on the floor. I peed in my shorts. Urine ran down one of my legs. Dad grabbed me by the arm and left the school, without even biding Dina Nath a courtesy good-bye.
Those were the days when teachers were always right, always listened to. Their brutal behaviour was not only tolerated, but they were also held in a high position by our society. But in my view Bhookhan Saran and Dina Nath were a total failure as teachers. They were incapable of seeding interest in learning. It was because of teachers like them that I developed a fear of raising my hand to ask a ‘stupid’ question or give a ‘stupid’ answer in my class for many years. Who knows how many children developed a fear of going to school and learning, and dropped out of the system; for ever?
Then a miracle, when I needed it most, occurred. My eldest brother, Ravi got a job as school-clerk at the National Anglo-Vedic Junior High School. It was a job for him, but for mom and dad a ray of divine light. Instantly they decided to register me at the same school where their eldest son was going to work. Though the school was approximately four miles, to and from home, the distance was not their concern, my education was.
That said I strongly believe that every child, no matter how old or young he or she is, needs an occasional miracle to happen in his life to keep his faith in God alive. If not, God might as well be a doorknob.
– By Dr Suresh Kurl, Dr. Suresh Kurl is a former university professor; a retired Registrar of the BC Benefits Appeal Board and a former Member of the National Parole Board.