Tonight our family was watching an episode of Ashapurna Devi’s novel Subarnalata, which has been recently dramatized for TV. There was a scene where the little girl pries on the central character, the mejobou in the joint family who has been reading a novel (incidentally, Tagore’s Gora) on the sly, and threatens to tell all to her grandma, who has driven it into her silly little head that for women to read books is nothing short of a cardinal sin. When mejobou later offers the girl’s mother to teach the girl to read and write, the mother warns her not to ‘ruin’ the child’s life.
Before today’s ‘educated’ reader turns up his (or even more to the point, her) nose at these benighted ancestors of ours, let us consider what has happened in (Bengali middle class) society in the more than eighty years since mejobou lived and struggled against harshly restrictive social norms. I can confirm that though my own grandmother went to school, she had to read novels on the sly after she got married, although big changes were coming about: the other grandma of mine actually taught lifelong in a school for girls. By the time my mother was growing up, most girls in ‘respectable’ families were going to college (and even becoming ‘smart’, if you read some of Tagore’s latter-day stories or watch the Uttam Kumar-Suchitra Sen movies), and I remember seeing as a child that it was considered okay, or at least customary, among ‘cultured’ families to give books as wedding presents. At least among urban middle-class Bengalis (I know just how small a fraction of the Indian population that is), reading seemed to have caught on in a big way.
However by the time I went to school and college, things had again changed in a big way (and remember, we are today’s parent-generation, all of us in our 40s and 50s!). True, for the eager book lover, there were still bookshops and libraries around, and some parents were even ready to buy books for their children, but their numbers were dwindling rapidly: I cannot vouch for the girls, but I know for a fact that in my whole batch at school and college I could count on my fingers how many boys ever read anything outside textbooks (and comic books), even among the ‘good’ students. Indeed, in all the years in college and university, I met only one female whom I could call a reader by my standards.
Now fast forward to the current day. When my daughter was reading a book while waiting for her school bus (she was not even ten then), the mother of another child asked my wife why she was reading something when there were no exams. around the corner. There are no libraries worth the name any more in this town, and no bookshop that sells anything outside textbooks and notebooks for examinations has survived. I have met hardly ten parents in all these 24 years of teaching in this town who have averred that they are interested in reading (reading anything beyond gossip rags and fashion magazines, that is), whereas I have been told again and again by literally hundreds of pupils that their parents regard reading as a cardinal sin: the same parents who think nothing of splurging on parties and clothes and cars, who maniacally insist that their children – girls and boys alike – must cram night and day for ‘good marks’ in examinations, who allow their children to waste scores of hours a month on trashy TV and computer games (can anyone tell me why?).
So 80 years on, we are back to mejobou’s condition with a vengeance! The only difference being that people are far more well off today, and most of them, male and female alike, take great pride in calling themselves ‘educated’. What does this augur for our future as a nation and as a culture?