Saturday, 21 November 2015

Memories of Childhood-The Seeds of Rebellion are indeed sown early in life!

The statement contained in the title of this post is indicative of the line of thought that I would pursue as a corollary to the lesson, Memories of Childhood prescribed by the CBSE for grade twelve English. The lesson found in the guided reading textbook Vistas describes two different people, Zitkala-Sa and Bama, social activists in their own right, who live in different eras, belong to different countries and yet share a few commonalities. Zitkala-Sa lived in America while Bama lives in India.
What is common about both of them is that they both experienced, and sensed the pain of marginalisation. In the case of Zitkala-Sa, it was the pain of being forcibly separated from her community and being put into the Carlisle Indian school as a child. To make matters worse, she had to undergo a rigorous programme of Westernisation which included getting her hair cut, replacing her Indian attire with skirts and shoes that squeaked, learning to eat by formula, learning a new language and a culture that taught that her Native Indian culture was not as good as the culture of the West! All this happened when she was a child and the most impressionable events took place in the first few days of her admission in the Carlisle Indian school. The humiliation of sitting at the table while others were still standing, being forcibly tied to the chair so that her hair could be cut, all led to confusion, a puzzlement resulting from being told that the things her mother had taught her were no good. All this made her cry aloud. She had suffered ‘extreme indignities’, she had been ‘tossed in the air like a wooden puppet,’ and in her anguish, she called out to a mother who was not there. It was at such a time that the seeds of rebellion were planted in her mind. Her statement to her friend, Judewin on being told that they were going to cut her hair (“No, I will not submit! I will struggle first!”) is a foreshadowing of what she would do as an adult. When her hair was cut, we are told, she ‘lost’ her ‘spirit’; by then the seeds of rebellion had already taken root. Later in life, we are told, Gertrude Simmons Bonnin became ‘an extraordinarily talented and educated Native American woman who struggled and triumphed in a time when severe prejudice prevailed towards Native American culture and women.’ Gertrude who wrote under the pen name, Zitkala-Sa became a prolific writer and a social activist who wrote about the marginalisation of the Native Indian Community and its culture by the Mainstream Western Community. As an adult she criticised the way Native Indians were sidelined, ostracised and looked down at by the settlers who had occupied their land and were now imposing their culture on them. The seed of rebellion planted during her childhood bore fruit when she grew up and wrote about how Native Indians were the victims of cultural chauvinism.
Bama, a Tamil Dalit woman from a Roman Catholic family, sensed and felt the anguish of marginalisation and the insult of belonging to a lower caste community. Although she might not have experienced direct humiliations, she was however, filled with extreme anguish and anger when her elder brother explained to her that what she had seen while returning home from school, (the community elder bowing low, holding a packet of vadais by the string before a young man who belonged to an upper caste community) was not something funny but rather an example of Cultural Chauvinism something to be shocked about. Bama had wanted to burst into laughter on seeing the community elder bent low holding the packet of snacks by the string was funny indeed. Her brother told her that ‘everybody believed that they were upper caste and therefore must not touch’ the people belonging to her community. If they touched the people of Bama’s community, then they would be ‘polluted.’ When Bama heard this she did not want to laugh anymore. She felt angry, disgusted, and infuriated. How could these people treat them like this? After all, they too were human beings!
What Bama saw that day, as a little girl studying in the third class, ensured that the seeds of rebellion against cultural and social-chauvinism were firmly planted in her mind. Added to what she observed on the way home, was the advice that her brother had given to her. He had told her that the only way to gain “honour or dignity or respect” was to “study and make progress…study with care…Work hard and learn.” What she saw in the marketplace, and the words of advice given to her by her brother ensured that excelled in studies, and as a result, ‘many people became (her) friends.’ As a social activist who exposed the scourge of caste system, Bama wrote three main works, an autobiography, Karukku, a novel, Sangati and a collection of short stories titled Kisumbukkaaran.
The lesson, Memories of Childhood makes it clear that injustice in any form cannot escape being noticed even by children. Both Zitkala-Sa and Bama were impressionable children who were affected by the injustice of cultural and communal chauvinism and they went on to rebel against the system that allows the marginalisation of weaker communities by mainstream communities. They wrote extensively on the subject and sought to expose the weaknesses and hypocrisies that exist in the modern society even today! Bama felt the injustice of the caste system, the pain of belonging to a lower caste community while Zitkala-Sa experienced the pain of belonging to a race, community that was considered less uncivilised. In both of these women it was about crying out loudly, “We too are Human Beings…”
Vistas, Supplementary Reader for Class XII (Core Course)
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