Remembering English textbooks

Amitava Kumar (Husband of a Fanatic, excerpted here) wonders why there are “no controversies over the obsolete English textbooks used in Indian schools,” when people are so quick to decry the reactionary history books. In an article for the Hindu, he writes eloquently about his own English textbooks:

I have very little memory now of what I had read in the books used in my history classes, although I do remember the attention with which I would copy out on clean sheets of paper the line-drawings that represented the portraits of emperors. Akbar’s moustache drooped. Humayun was thin and wizened, already preparing, it seemed, for a premature death. The rounded lines in the portrait of Shah Jahan contained all the sorrow of love’s futile striving. Nearly everything else in those books escapes me at the moment.

This might be entirely because I was a mediocre student and, like the uninspired everywhere, I found my classes stultifying. But the fact remains that I still have vivid and exact memories of what I read in my English textbooks. It was there that I read George Orwell’s account of shooting an elephant in Burma, Dom Moraes on a trip to the Thar, Khushwant Singh’s depiction of life in the village of Mano Majra, Somerset Maugham describing the solitude on his seventieth birthday.

When I was sixteen, I left my hometown Patna to go to school in Delhi. The school where I got admission, Modern School on Barakhamba Road, was a prestigious enclave where the children of the rich and the powerful came each day as if they were visiting a familiar club. Our teachers, for the most part drawn from the Punjabi middle-class, could only use a puritanical and unimaginative pedagogy to prop themselves up against the display of wealth. They knew in their hearts that they were superfluous and stuck to the dull routine of making us read and repeat the words in the textbooks prescribed by the school board.

Nevertheless, the English textbooks that I read and reread during those two years gave me a sense of language and an idea of how to express my own sense of the world that I inhabited. This is what literature can do, even without your knowing it.


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