A class apart

July 4, 2009 at 1:55 am 1 comment

A class apart


The SLC results are out; 68.47 percent of the candidates have cleared the Iron Gate, and this year’s result is said to be the highest in its 75-year history. Commentators are in a celebratory mood at this year’s unprecedented yield. But what they should be asking is why the unprecedented result has denied the privilege to the remaining 31.53 percent. Who are these failures? Where do they come from? What will happen to them in the New Nepal or in the 21st century world of information technology and knowledge economy? What sort of work they will do? What does the gap between the overwhelming number of third divisions and the 11,000 first divisions mean for the nation’s future?

In the 1960s, when I started school in a Morang village at the southern edge of the charkose jungle, my class was the third batch and it had only three pupils — a Rajbanshi girl, a Rajbanshi boy and myself. And for all intents and purposes, I was a Rajbanshi. I spoke the language; it was my only culture; and my kinship network, socially formed by my mother, spread across villages among the Rajbanshis.


In later years, after DDT came, the first batch of settlers from the hills began spending more time in the plains; and their children, too, joined the school.

In the first five years, from classes one to five, our school moved to five different sites and expanded from one to three rooms. Save for the last schoolhouse, whose walls were made of sapwood, had a thatched roof and lasted a couple of years, all the others were made of bamboo, hay and thatch. By the end of the year, local cattle would eat away the walls, the rains rotted the roof, and the effort would begin anew at the end of the school year to collect bamboo and thatch and hay from the villages around, which grown boys carried on their backs (most boys were already in their early teens when they started reading, writing and basic arithmetic). By the time I reached class five, deforestation had begun in earnest, providing sapwood for the walls of the three-room school.

Our first teachers were Indian traders and confectioners who had ventured into malaria-infested Morang to buy a seer or half-seer of rice, mustard and jute at the weekly market and then sell them in bulk to the merchants in Rangeli, four hours south. The Rajbanshi village chief, Jahar Singh (we also had a Sher Singh, and the two names frightened outsiders who didn’t know what to expect in the den of lions) had coaxed one of these grain traders, a man named Poddar whom his pupils called Long Jaw, to be our first master. The second master, the pupils called him Sukhna for his emaciated looks, had a sweets shop at the village bazaar. I suppose they had a few years of schooling in their home villages and had come to make a living through petty trading away from the unemployment and famine of Bihar.

Both the Rajbanshis and the first batch of hill men had begun to realize that their children should learn the alphabets and basic arithmetic, from addition to division. And those boys who had ambitions went for higher multiplication, from 11×11 to 20×20. It was our solid geometry and complex calculus that only tougher boys with greater grey matter pursued.

These Indian traders knew Manohar Pothi, our first primer, which said Mahatma Gandhi was the father of our nation. It was soon replaced by the Mahendra Mala series, which shifted the focus from Gandhi to King Mahendra, from dahi to mohi, and from Hindi to Nepali. We used white clay to write on black slates and wiped them clean as many times as we wished with our hand. Ink was made by dissolving pieces of purple clay from Buchchi’s shop in water, and pens were made from bamboo slivers. The older boys could always make better pens because they had knives of their own and could use it better, sharpening the bamboo into a smooth body and slitting through the sharpened, sloping head to make a fine nib. I always envied their skills, but could never emulate them, for I had no knife and I could never achieve any success in calligraphy, which remained a lifelong regret.

When the first matric-failed teacher, a brother-in-law of a local Rajbanshi landowner, arrived from a different village (I was in class three), it caused a sensation among the pupils and the guardians alike. They all said that we finally had a master with a degree. We all aspired then to be matric-failed. In class four, when Hari Prasad Dulal arrived from the eastern hills with normal training received at a place called Dharan — as DDT had begun to show results on the mosquitoes, cats and the jungle — his normal training sounded most abnormal and exotic. He indeed transformed the learning experience. Grown boys no longer showed off and bragged about their welts, and the younger ones no longer pissed in their pants. Dulal Sir coaxed the pupils and teachers into bands of dancers and singers and led them around the villages during festivals to raise funds for thatch, sapwood and stationery. Good looking boys became marunis in sari and blouse and I danced as a clown with a fake rubber nose and an upturned moustache. Dulal Master was the first to introduce blotting paper, rubber eraser and stamp pad in the school.

Then a perpetually drunk panchayat chief founded a high school in the middle of the jungle on a whim and named it after his mother. We now had a multi-room schoolhouse made of sal trees — floor, walls and pillars — and a roof of baked tile. Resourceful as he was, he brought (at least this was the rumour of their awe-inspiring degrees) a mix of I.A.-failed Indian traders and B.A.-failed wandering hill men as masters. I finished class six and seven there. Then the school, too, failed. And both the teacher and the school disappeared from the village for good.

Years later, the primary school evolved into a high school, named after the then crown prince. The teachers now had certified degrees, but new handicaps replaced the old. The village, as in most other places in Nepal, has a government school now, where the poorest of the poor can’t afford books and minimal fees, and the “boarding schools”, where the pupils have to wear ties. Even the poor now have ambitions to send their children to the English-medium school, whereas the government school now has too many pupils and too few teachers. Towns and cities have options and facilities, villages don’t. A few well-to-do can avail of the best for their children, while the poor are left behind everywhere. Those groups that have had a sense of entitlement to knowledge and the land have a vision for themselves and their progeny; those who have lived without a sense of entitlement and connection very often don’t know what education will bring them. They still don’t send their children to school, or even if they do so, there is little motivation and drive.

The SLC results of this year, as in other years, carry all the complexity of Nepal’s geography, class, caste and ethnic divide. Old handicaps of the initial years have gone, but new ones have appeared. Chinese pens have replaced bamboo slivers, Enid Blyton may have replaced Manohar Pothi, but can there be a new revolution in mass education replacing the first, hesitant beginnings? Nepali patriots are obsessed with Nepal’s border with India. Can they be similarly obsessed with India’s giant strides in education? The Indian government is already acting on the recommendations of its Knowledge Commission under its prioritized Human Resources Development Ministry. But top Nepali political leaders still give interviews about defence, home and foreign as the plum ministries deserving their high ambition and status. Who gives a fig about education? What is the Constituent Assembly going to do about education in the New Nepal and make sure that there is equality of opportunity for everyone in education?



Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Giri RAO  |  July 14, 2009 at 10:07 am

    Dear Mr Mishra

    Thank you for this excellent memoir and analysis.

    You speak of “India’s giant strides in education”. I’m afraid that’s only partly true. While school infrastructure and enrolment have improved considerably, student retention and education quality continue to remain huge problems.

    The relevant links are in my 25 Feb 2009 post “Schooling crisis in India” on my blog Bolii – http://bolii.blogspot.com

    Thank you, once again.

    Warm regards from a humid Hyderabad!

    Giridhar RAO

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