The Rajasthan government has removed all Western poems and Urdu words from its school text books. For instance, it has replaced TS Eliot’s poem Macavity the Mystery Cat and Edward Lear’s The Kangaroo and the Duck with other poems, among the titles of which one, My First Visit to The Bank, particularly stood out for me as did The Glory of Rajasthan.
Both my parents loved poetry and it was a routine presence in our home, with Urdu (yes) and Western poetry quoted sometimes playfully, sometimes reflectively. This gave me a means to recognise poetry, and a way to relate to the Hindi poems we were learning in school, despite the dour teaching style they were being flattened by. It meant I could compete with the Urdu and English poetry at home via a pious rendition of ‘charu chandra ki chanchal kiranen’ etc. while everyone looked impressed (or pretended to look impressed while secretly laughing at me in the accurate and tragic version of my childhood).
Poetry shows us a different way to have fun, to make associations, see that ideas glow brighter and experiences get a recognisable shape with wordplay and alliteration and rhyme and rhythm. Poetry helps us see that reality is made up of both facts, visible evidence and sensory information, palpable feelings which we cannot see, but can sense. It teaches us these things through suggestion and form rather than direct information and content. It shows us the interplay of outer truths and inner truths. The endlessly varied exploration of many shades of one emotion provides a more complex understanding of truth and strengthens the idea of subjectivity. And, to be able to learn through different kinds of poetry enriches us beyond the obvious.
Our syllabi have a big colonial hangover. They are not updated to reflect contemporary literary traditions and excellence of the world. Why not include translations of Chinese poets, for instance — no need to stick to the Western world. The language and literature syllabi could be expanded to include the many new forms of poetry that are now practiced — things young people relate to, like hip-hop even.
Syllabi could also be updated to include the vast array of Indian poetry and poetic forms. Instead of giving students less to choose from, surely we should give them more, otherwise we are just promising an education that makes us provincial in our mindset, rather than proud of our own heritage from a place of confidence.
One of the things officials said as a justification for the changed syllabus is that Urdu words were dropped because they were too difficult for students to understand. Kasam se, I still cannot understand trigonometry, but I am sure it has not been dropped from any syllabus. Mathematician friends assure me it’s poetic but I know no maths teacher is teaching it like that. Why do we seek an education? To learn what we don’t know, to broaden our horizons and so, better our lives. If we only learn what we already know — different from learning in terms of what we know — how will that happen?
One of the great literary figures of Rajasthan, Vijaydan Detha, produced a massive body of work in Rajasthani, not even counted as an official Indian language. When I asked him who his favourite writers were, in an interview, he said, “Chekhov and Tagore. I count them as my gurus who taught me through their writing.” Clearly, as he showed, it is possible to be intensely local and effortlessly universal. To be at home in the world, we also have to be at home with the world.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com