Saturday, 5 September 2015

Three important strands in literature that the CBSE develops through grades eight to twelve in its textbooks

By the time the students of English Core reach grade level twelve, they will have  gone through similar strands at different grade levels to build an understanding of specific genres of literature. Here I would like to reiterate the ideal case scenario where students typically take up English elective till the grade ten level and then switch over to the English Core syllabus till grade twelve. In such a case, the curriculum framers have made a judicious collection of short stories, poems and drama pieces. Here I would like to specifically state that I am limiting myself to an analysis of lessons in the textbooks. Thus, if I were to divide the Literature lessons into themes or units, then I would like to trace the following themes or strands or even genres that run through grades eight to twelve as follows: Satire: exposing the foibles or weaknesses of individuals or weaknesses in the society, Transformational Literature, whether it is transformation of the individual that has been brought about by intrinsic factors or for that effect extrinsic ones, Relationships, filial, familial, Aesthetics, a study of what makes things beautiful, and so on. I will now break up the English course through grades in the form of the following strands:

1. Exposing the foibles of the society through Satire: ( The Collins COBUILD Student’s Dictionary 2006 edition explains satire to be ‘the use of humour to mock or criticize political ideas or the way that people behave.’) Satire as a genre is one of the important strands that the CBSE develops from grade nine English Elective to grade twelve English Core. Take for example the lesson ‘Mrs. Packletide’s Tiger’ that students study in grade nine.

Grade nine (Elective):The short story criticizes the foibles weaknesses and vanity of the upper class British women’s society during the British Raj. The only reason  Mrs Packletide  wants to shoot a tiger in India is not because she wants to leave India a safer place, but rather because she wants to put to shame her social rival Loona Bimberton who flew eleven miles in a plane flown by an Algerian Aviator! The short story by Saki makes use of irony, hyperbole, and paradox to poke fun at the vanity, and undercurrents of jealousy that drive the upper class society of women. The dramatic irony of Mrs Packletide aiming her gun at the old tiger weakened by senile decay which has a echo in The Tiger King, a short story in Grade twelve written by Kalki and the literary irony of Loiusa Mebbin naming her cottage Les Fauves all are important elements of a satire that exposes the hollowness of a particular section of the society.

Grade eleven (English Core) : Students come across the poem by Vikram Seth in the supplementary reader titled, ‘The King of Melon City”. This is a poem unlike the two other pieces. Vikram Seth uses satire and irony along with hyperbole and paradox to expose the great blame game that bureaucrats and leaders like to play when things go wrong. First and foremost, the King of Melon City claims to be ‘just and placid’ so when he orders that someone should be hanged for the effrontery done to the state when the  Crown was  dashed to the ground by the low arch, it is clear that he would have to be hanged since it was he who had ordered changes in the blue-print of the arch. Also, the poem pokes fun at the people of melon city who are happy to have a melon as their king because they don’t like any interference in their lives. There is an oblique comment about the randomness of the democratic system of electing  leaders for responsible posts. This is an important poem that should be taught to students of grade eleven as an important example of satire. Students should be made to understand about the importance of satire and how it can be an important vehicle for social and individual transformation!

Grade twelve (English Core): In grade twelve, students get to read ‘The Tiger King’, a short story by Kalki. ‘The Tiger King,’ a satire draws a parallel with Saki’s ‘Mrs Packletide’s Tiger’  because the climax of the story lies in the incident where the Tiger King thinks he has shot his hundredth tiger, but in fact misses his aim. Like in Saki’s ‘Mrs Packeltide’s Tiger’ the tiger in  ‘The Tiger King’ is in an advanced stage of ‘senile decay’.  Kalki’s short story like the previous works of literature is a comment on the political and bureaucratic system existing in the country. The attitude of the mighty and powerful towards wildlife and nature is questionable, and so is the kind of relationship of hierarchical protocols with subordinates is brought under the scanner. The selfishness of bureaucrats, their putting the self before the state, their obsession with all things foreign, their expectation that others will give them gifts, like the maharaja expected the shopkeeper to give him the wooden tiger free and not take any money for it are all exposed in this short stories as foibles and weaknesses of the bureaucratic system that is almost as aristocratic as the British Raj. The Tiger King thinks he can go scot free after killing all those tigers, he thinks he can bully his servants and minions into doing what he wants, he thinks he is above the law, but then although he might dictate terms and conditions of jurisprudence,  he is however not beyond Divine Justice! The manner of his death is ironical enough, and it is a message to all those bureaucrats who think that they can get away with their excesses that the sword of Damocles hangs over each one’s neck. The Indian society is full of instances of the rich and powerful trying to destroy wildlife whether it is in the form of shooting black bucks or killing deer, either way, history has shown how the long arm of the law does finally catch up with such people! The theme of a holistic responsibility of protecting our environment and ecology is developed all the way through grade nine, grade eleven and grade twelve with a culmination in the lesson, ‘The Tiger King.’

2. Using literature as a vehicle for the Transformation of the individual: 
Grade Ten (Elective course) ‘The Letter’ by Dhumaketu in grade ten, English literature is an important short story that has the theme of transformation at its core. The postmaster in the lesson is a hard hearted man, unfeeling and insensitive by nature. He calls Coachman Ali ‘a pest’ and wonders why he keeps visiting the post office for a letter that never comes. Coachman Ali’s persistence and patience with which he visits the post office without fail for five years speak of a father’s love for his daughter, a conviction that she will send him a letter one day. A story so touching and full of pathos, it fills the reader’s heart with sympathy. The transformation that takes place in this lesson is in the postmaster’s  attitude. The postmaster who initially thought of letters as mere pieces of paper, now realises that there is a beating heart inside each letter. The postmaster understands how it is to be a father when his own daughter in another town falls ill and he doesn’t get to hear from her for a few days, compare this  with the five year of no new in the case of Coachman Ali! The story also describes the transformation that takes place in Coachman Ali himself. He was a shikari with an exceptionally good aim and a sharp eye and he did not have any scruples in killing wild game even if it meant orphaning their offspring. The change in Coachman Ali however takes place when his daughter Mirriam  marries an army man and leaves her father to settle in a far away town in Punjab. This separation from his daughter  makes Ali realise how the offspring of the wild animals and birds must have felt on being separated from their parents.

Grade eleven (English Core): One lesson that is no longer in the course is the play Titled, ‘Mother’s Day’ by J.B.Priestly highlighted the transformation in the attitude that a husband and their two children undergo when Mrs. Annie Pearson is helped by Mrs Fitzegerald an esoteric neighbour who is adept in switching bodies! The play, a humorous one, depicts the reaction of Mrs Pearson’s family when she tries to stand up for her rights. The play written in the 1950s, is a humorous and satirical depiction of the status of the mother in the family. The play that portrays various issues and problems that are relevant even today delivers a strong message of social reform especially in the way mothers are treated in the family.

Grade twelve (English Core): There are three lessons in grade twelve that have transformation as a very strong central theme and these include the Play, ‘On The Face Of It’ by Susan Hill,’ ‘Deep Water,’ by William Douglas, and ‘The Rattrap’ by Selma Lagerloff, all deal with the transformation of the self. The only difference between the three is that while the transformation in the central characters in ‘On The Face of It,’ and ‘The Rattrap’ are brought about by external agents, the transformation that takes place in the author in ‘Deep Water’ is self induced. Also which ‘On The Face of It’ is a drama, ‘The Rattrap’ is a short story belonging to the allegorical genre written as a fable or a fairy tale. William Douglas's ‘Deep Water,’ however belongs to the  autobiographical genre. In the Drama, ‘On The Face Of It’ the central character Derry undergoes a transformation when he comes across Mr Lamb. That one conversation convinces Derry that he can overcome his handicap, pessimism and live a life of joy, only he has to make a choice. In the case of ‘The Rattrap’ the transformation in the peddler is brought about through his interaction with three people, The old Crofter, The Iron Master, and finally, Edla. The moral of the lesson is that there is goodness in all human beings, and this goodness can be brought out through the kindness and generosity of others. The power of unconditional kindness and generosity in transforming human nature has been highlighted here. ‘Deep Water’ is however different from the other two because it highlights the importance of self-motivation in bringing out visible transformation of the self. ‘Deep Water’ is like a self help book that tells you about the processes and means for bringing about your own transformation. A task analysis of ‘Deep Water’ will reveal that what it takes to overcome one’s handicaps include accepting the one has a problem, taking an expert’s help, persistence, determination, and hard work, doing things on your own, and finally pushing your limits!

3.Literature and  Aesthetics: (The Collins COBUILD Student’s Dictionary, 2006 edition, states, ‘Aesthetic is used to talk about beauty or art and people’s appreciation of beautiful things.’

Grade eight:The poem ‘Daffodils’ by William Wordsworth is taught in grade eight as an example of Romantic Poetry and to describe Worsdworth’s appreciation for the beauty of nature as seen by him and his sister while taking a stroll in the mountains. The image of the dancing daffodils was to remain in his mind long after the day they saw the flowers, and the author mentions how when he was down at heart he fell back on the memory of the dancing daffodils and how that memory helped bring good cheer to him. Now that is what aesthetics is! While the poem describes the meaning of beauty as something that never dies, it also highlights the beauty of nature.

Grade Twelve (English Core): The Poem, ‘A Thing of Beauty’ by John Keats, like the poem, ‘Daffodils’ as read by students in grade eight highlights the meaning of beauty as something that never fades away, and in fact beauty, real beauty is something whose value grows as time passes. Keats moves ahead of Wordsworth when he adds a list of beautiful things that includes, lambs, trees, musk rose blooms, clear rills of water, and even the stories of bravery and sacrifice of people who laid down their lives for a good cause. Keats, himself a romantic poet goes further to suggest that beauty has a spiritual source since it flows from a fountain in heaven to help us tide over difficult times and bear the brunt of indifferent minds, malicious intentions, and ‘dearth of noble natures’.

I have identified three very deep strands of theme that run through the CBSE English course from grades eight to twelve. This analysis is limited to the textbooks prescribed by the CBSE and prepared by the NCERT. It doesn’t mean that other strands don’t exist, in fact they do, but then I guess I would pick them up some other time! 

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