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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Subarnalata

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?


19 comments:

Winning is Living... said...

Dear SIR ,

As you point out here in your post , the habit of reading is truly on the decline . Though it is a matter of shame , but in reality we do waste far more time than what we actually utilze...and even if a trifle of this wasted time was utilized in reading it would have done a lot of good ! Reading is a key to gaining a thorough grasp in any language...not only does it increase one's vocabulary but it also hones the language skills .

In another part that you pointed out about the lack of libraries and book shops, if one is really interested in reading cannot he find an alternative? Today , courtesy the internet , one can access things easily..so why not use it for this purpose too! Or for a simpler solution, if one is a true reader...then they can also exchange books with associates or friends who have a habit of reading books regularly (there are certainly a few around !)......


With regards ,
Shameek.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Hundreds of visitors struck dumb - again!

Arya said...

Hello Sir,

This is definitely a burning truth that you have presented. I will confess, that once upon a time I did love reading, but the pressure of exams, the pressure of getting 'bhalo nombor',the pressure of 'ashai jol dhelo na' did take its toll on my habit. I still remember my mother scolding me because even when the dinner was served I refused to let go off my book which definitely had nothing to do with my school curriculum. Reading books outside the curriculum is actually taken as a waste of time in my family at least. Just a few days back I was reading "The Biography Of Satan" and I remember my mother asking me "Are you reading something related to your syllabus or something for pleasure?" I had no choice but to lie to continue reading. I am pretty sure a lot of people face such things nowadays. I, personally, don't blame the parents or the peers. I blame the rat race-the rat race of success, the cut throat competition for survival. Every parent wants to see their wards as the CEOs or Directors of famed MNCs. They seem to pay more attention to the glossy surface than the depth of true knowledge. Thank You for speaking our mind. Take care.

Yours faithfully,
Karnika.

Tanmoy said...

Dear Suvroda

Respect for books has undoubtedly gone down as you point of time and again.

Today I saw a brilliant piece of kid's program on television. There were 10 kids (less than 10 year old) who were interviewed by the host. These kids are supposed to be NZ's future authors. Sometime back, New Zealand Post organised a short story competition for kids. The stories written by these 10 were picked and were published into a very colourful illustrated book which was unveiled by no less than the Kiwi PM, who met all these kids.

Well, I am sure our PM's are far more busy!!! I think that has become our culture. We will always have too many things to do but will not ensure the development of the soul.

Regards

Tanmoy

Suvro Chatterjee said...

With reference to the last-but-one line in my post, I was suddenly reminded of a bit of satire I read in Anandabazar Patrika, I think: a 'successful' mafia don has gone to buy a college degree (I'm sure it will come as a surprise to very few of my readers to hear that that is a very widespread practice in this country), muttering angrily to himself saala seekshito na hole aajkaal daam dyaye na public...!. Do I need to translate?

Sandipan Chattaraj said...

I think that the biggest threat to the habbit of reading is mindless playing of Computer games. I have tried to convince myself, umpteen number of times, that there must be something interesting about Computer Games (because so many kids find the meaning of their existence in them). But somehow, the excitement, which has completely engulfed many, has eluded me. Nowadays, kids waste a lot of time in fighting with deadly enemies on the computer screen with all kind of weapons and getting killed and becoming alive again. Unfortunately, the parents think that there son or daughter is learning computer science and don't stop them (some of them even boast infront of their friends about how many levels their kid has crossed in the latest computer game in town).

RISHAB said...

Dear Sir,

The attitude towards books is changing day by day. By books people only mean the big fat books containing the hard core facts of physics, chemistry, biology and so on. Last day I was reading the Reader's Digest at my school when suddenly a teacher came and started scolding me saying that this is not the time to read those 'faltu' books. No question is going to come from that in the competitive exams.
He also said that probably that was the reason why I could not score well in that subject in school exams. And yet when these students are asked to write an essay or compete for extempore, just a minute competition, they avoid them, those are not required for their career. The general teacher, parent and student of this generation is like that. When I ask few of my friends why they do not read any book outside their syllabus, they answer back saying that it is such a waste of time and is not required for their career. Well my parents say that whatever you learn, nothing goes in waste. I do not blame the students, maybe they did not have parents like mine to guide them.

And such is the poor condition of the bookstalls in durgapur.
You go to one of them and ask for a copy of books such as DPC, HC Verma(physics books), ABC of Biology you will get many but go and ask for a copy of Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie and other novels, it is rare that you will get one. I had to wait for two months to get a copy of " To Kill A Mockingbird".

Well the condition is deteriorating day by day.

With regards,
Rishab.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Five things, Rishabh:

1) Your father is a successful doctor, and I'm sure your mother too is an educated woman. That does not prevent them from encouraging you to read 'outside the syllabus'. So it is obvious that most young people these days never find out the joy and profit that comes from wide reading (and many of those young people have become teachers now, alas!) because they didn't have wise parents who were readers themselves.
2) As I have said before, India is a particularly pathological case. Things are not so bad everywhere. I have ex-students who have become surgeons but read and enjoyed a great variety of literature in college, because they attended college in the USA and elsewhere.
3) By 'career', most young people understand little better than low-level mechanical and financial or marketing jobs, where, really, no reading outside textbooks will ever be needed. But it remains a fact that all high-level successful people except in show-biz are well-read: whether you consider J.K. Rowling or Manmohan Singh, APJ Abdul Kalam or Barack Obama or Mark Zuckerberg.
4) Once upon a time (and I mean even in my dad's time) there were lots of doctors and engineers who were well-read. Doctors, engineers, CAs and managers who know nothing outside their tiny professional domains and are proud of it is a very recent phenomenon.
5) Our whole middle-class' current goal is kom porey ja hok kichhu akta motamuti chakri pabo. And that is what they call 'ambition'. There has never been a generation of youth with lower goals...

sayantika said...

Dear Sir,
My mother also watches Subarnalata,and she told me how my grandmother too, had to read novels secretly at her in-laws place. And even so many years after, the scenario is worse. As I had commented earlier, many are averse to reading. Once I bought 7 books at Oxford Bookstore and one of my friends asked me whether my parents would scold me since I 'wasted' so much money on books that were not 'required'. I had replied that if I just buy them and don't read, they would.

Thanks and with regards,
Sayantika

Vaishnavi said...

Dear Sir,

I have been saving up allowance money and spending them on books for as long as I remember. Ever since I was a kid, they were the only things I ever spent money on or still do when there are sales and sometimes when there are not. You just have to find good bargains. About the decline of the habit of reading, with most people I encounter it is not in the decline, it is already dead and I am used to the bizarre stares I get when books are the topic of conversation. People can read Autocar or Vogue but not even a small fable. I read magazines too but it is disgusting to hear people brag about how boring people find books and how they cannot stay awake for more than a page.

As for the general lack of libraries. I have never been able to find decent ones in my neighbourhood and have always had to travel into the city for the British Council Library. But Chennai seems to be seeing better times, a huge government library has recently opened and I am just waiting to go check it out Sir. I hope they have a good collection and that the tariffs are reasonable!

Regards,
Vaishnavi

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Sorry I didn't attend to your comment for so long, Vaishnavi.

First, let it be noted that you are the only person I know working in the IT-sector (and believe me, I know a lot of them) who is a regular and serious reader,

Second, do keep me posted about this new public library that is coming up in Chennai. I wouldn't be surprised if it is stillborn, or winds up after a few years. That's what has happened to the municipal library that was set up in my town with much fanfare a little more than a decade ago...
Sir

DEBARATI said...

Dear Sir,

With reference to your second comment in the forum...
Firstly I had a bit of a laugh at the muttering of the 'successful' mafia: "saala seekshito na hole aajkaal daam dyaye na public..!"
This reminded me of a person I knew who had forged his +2 certificate because he failed to pass the exams. I told him to sit for the exams again to which he had replied,"Pagol naki? Baba-ma jante parle khoon kore felbe!" In fact I know the entire process of what he did to forge the certificate before showing it off to his parents. He did sit for the exams a year later when his parents were under the impression that he is studying for his BBA degree. It's 7 years now and his parents still don't know the truth!

Coming to your main post..
I remember my mom telling me years back that my dad used to hide the story books in his textbooks to avoid the scornful eyes of his mother. He did find out his own ways to quench his thirst.
That was 45 years ago!
But today, especially with ample opportunities in a city like Kolkata, I still come across students who, either distaste the habit of reading books or, if it's otherwise, are under the tremendous pressure of teachers, parents and peers to 'stick' to the textbook. Somehow I also feel that there is yet another reason (disagree with me if you want)for not allowing people to explore beyond textbooks(apart from the reason of scoring good marks) and that is it is considered to be a threat(!). The wider the span of knowledge, the more are the options of people trying to get detached from the herd. Once people grow a mind of their own they start to ponder on things happening around them, they start to reason, which indeed gets threatening for a majority of the mass who tend to rule people with a set of demeaning societal rules.

Regards,
Debarati.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

You have hit it absolutely on the head, Debarati. One who reads finds out very quickly (my daughter did before she became a teenager) that there are vast and varied worlds outside the family, relatives, neighbours and school, and much to learn and think about and experiment with beyond the strict, narrow, silly regimens (pass exams-get jobs-shop-watch TV and go to parties with other nincompoops like you!) that most adults enforce. And those adults are scared stiff that children will stop obeying and conforming mindlessly once they find out. As the king said in Satyajit Ray's Hirak Rajar Deshe, je joto beshi jane, shey toto kom maney... otoeb koro ore mogoj dholai'!

Sayan Datta said...

I loved Debarati's comment and this one line in particular- " The wider the span of knowledge, the more are the options of people trying to get detached from the herd." It is so exact, precise and true.

DEBARATI said...

Thanks Sir and Sayan, both.

I have seen so many boys and girls alike who would dread to expand their territories and do almost anything to be a part of the herd. They are so afraid and I can bet they had never taken a single risk in their lives. They wouldn't question anything at all afraid being confronted with frowns. They would gladly believe whatever is told to them because they have lost the ability to 'reason'. And we, who dare to question and reason are considered outcast because are looked down upon as threats to the society.
What the hell! I' rather be considered an outcast than one in the herd!

Debarati.

debotosh said...

after all ,reading is basic to democracy but it finds a very small place in the urban middle class "democratic" society !

http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/article1103118.ece?homepage=true

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thanks for the link, Debotosh.

Reading facilitates feeling, thinking and knowing - three things that are very low on our priority list as a nation (as opposed to eating, drinking, dressing up, shopping, partying...). We want only that much 'education' that can give us shortcuts to our priorities: anything more is anathema (and there is no generation gap here: parents and children are equally agreed that education is nothing better than a necessary evil!). This mindset suits our leaders - both in business and in politics - perfectly, so they encourage it with all their might, because mindless education supplies them with unquestioning drudges and consumers by the million, whereas real education is always dangerous for the establishment: as Satyajit Ray said, je joto beshi jaane, shey toto kom maane.... Vidyasagars and Subhas Bose-s cannot be controlled the way doctors and engineers can, either by parents or by netas!

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Why does this particular post stay so high on my most-read list, I wonder?

Suvro Chatterjee said...

I find it most intriguing that this post is still on the most-read list, such a long time after it was written - and yet rarely commented upon! Will anybody care to suggest an explanation?