Hindi teachers, please don’t leave our kids alone!

PRITHVI DATTA CHANDRA SHOBHI writes from Oakland, California: Now that the University of Mangalore has put the fate of U.R. Anantha Murthy‘s novel Samskara on the backburner, at least for the current academic year, here is a question: Why is Samskara in the Hindi syllabus of the University?

Samskara is an outstanding novel, I teach it all the time, and I hope everybody reads it. But my first quibble isn’t about the merits of the novel but about its choice. This is a Kannada novel, and one would assume that in a University located in the Kannada speaking regions, students would be able to read it in the original. Or in English, thanks to an outstanding translation by A.K. Ramanujan.

The interests of the students would have been better served by reading a Hindi author. Srilal Shukla, for instance. Hindi literature is well served by so many great writers. Why not introduce them? Why a work of translation, even if it is a great novel?

Here is my point. Would the Board of Studies have considered the Hindi translations of D.H. Lawrence or William Faulkner or even Thakazhi Shivashankara Pillai?

So, Mangalore University Hindi Teachers’ Association should have its ire directed against the Hindi BOS. That they won’t do. Why? It consists mainly of Mangalore University Hindi lecturers. In any case, the debate should have been about what their students should be reading and learning inside their classroom.

Second, I also believe that the controversy has arisen because of how our college professors teach novels inside the classroom. I kid you not when I write this. But most teachers read every single line of the novel and explain it. This is how teachers can kill time by teaching one or two novels per semester. Students too don’t read anything before the examination and certainly come totally unprepared to discuss any text in the classroom. You see, there are no
‘practicals’ in a language class and so students can just get by without doing any work.

When I teach Samskara, I spend anywhere between 3-6 hours on the novel. My students would have read it and we discuss the issues. And yes, that includes the the relationship of Praneshacharya and Chandri. Sure, my gender (male) and the fact that I teach in an American University makes a difference. But I have some understanding of the
objections raised here.

I am reminded of my mother’s comments when she had to teach Shabarashankaravilasa or Bharateshavaibhava in her Kannada literature classes. She was embarrassed but she had to take these moments in her stride and keep the focus on what the students needed to learn.

Ask any woman Kannada professor who has taught Kannada kavyas. The use of sringara (erotic) rasa by a Kannada poet often meant an explicit description of the female figure, the sexual exploits of the hero, and so on and so forth. If she had to discuss how the erotic enters the text and poetic imagination, which would have been an essential component of teaching any Kannada kavya, then she would have had go through the ‘offensive’ verses.

I am tempted to be blunt and demand that Mangalore University’s Hindi teachers get over their reservations. But what I will say though is that they need to rethink their pedagogical methods. They ought to focus on the issues and ideas (including the explicit descriptions) instead of worrying about how to read these offensive portions.

Third, let us talk a little about these offensive references (to breasts), vulgarity and explicit sexual descriptions themselves. What is the context? Among other things, Samskara makes two important claims: first, only sexual contact (across caste lines) can break caste taboos and second, a Shudra woman (Chandri, in this instance) represents a vital race with tremendous energy and earthly sense of life.

While the Madhva community has always been quite offended by its unflattering portrayal in the novel, I think URA’s radical insights have to do with legitimizing and institutionalizing inter-caste (sexual) relationships, marital or otherwise. The Praneshacharya-Chandri relationship has to be looked at primarily from this societal imperative.

So if we are not debating with URA on his suggestion on how we can go beyond a hierarchical caste system (that only sexual contact can break caste taboos), then I don’t know what else are we going to discuss in our classrooms with our youngsters.

If Mangalore University’s Hindi teachers aren’t raising these questions in their classrooms, if all they find in Samskara are these references to or descriptions of sexual encounters, and if their worry is merely how to teach such episodes, then I think they should find another line of work.

The issues that Samskara raises are some of the great questions of our time and regardless of our opinion, we must raise them and hold vigorous discussions in our classroom. I don’t care if a professor were to defend the caste system or say URA is wrong in his description of Brahmin women or Madhva community. That is perfectly reasonable. But what is unacceptable is the refusal to discuss these issues with 19- or 20-year-old young men and women in a language and literature class. That would be a disservice to the students, as well as a great under-estimation of their maturity and capabilities.

What offends me is the puritanism or madivantike (as we call it in Kannada) that is on display here. It is same mentality that finds fault with Kuvempu‘s Malegalali Madumagalu and countless other great works.

What offends me is that we pick faltu fights over the real ones we ought to be concerned about. And this fight is as faltu as it gets.