From Sabitri School to Starmark Bookstore – Traversing Kolkata’s Great Divide

Sahapur Sabitri Balika Vidyalaya is the local government school where the girls attended from Classes I-IV.  The Primary School ends with Class IV.  We still have one girl in Class IV, as well as Ganga who is in Class II.  I was asked to come to a meeting Friday morning.    I’ve been President of the Mother Teacher Committee, but more than that I have a strong committment to the school and to public education.  My lack of Bengali is an obstacle, but this is also the one place I tend to try out my terrible Bengali, which is always met with peals of laughter.  I’d been asked to come to give my opinion on a couple of choices the school had been given regarding uniforms and regarding a mid day meal.

Parents' meeting at Sahapur Sabitri Balika Vidyalaya

The meeting at Sabitri School was at 10 am. 
By evening I was in another place, at Starmark Bookstore in South City Mall for the launch of “Beyond Textbooks,” a new and innovative program to encourage reading by children 8-12 years of age.    I went because of Maya McManus, the young woman whose inspiration started the initiative.  I met Maya some years ago as we were sitting next to each other on a flight from London to Kolkata.  I was reading “The Hungry Tide” at the time, but my book was still in my bag.  I glanced over and saw her with the same book.  We started talking, and stayed in touch over the years mostly through FB.  She has come back to Kolkata and I was really excited to see her, and to come to the launch.  Well, I was excited, but in truth, I wasn’t sure until the last moment that I would show up.  I knew some of the panelists from other settings.  I’ve never gone to any of these events because just thinking about them makes me upset.  I’m upset because they represent a level of literature, culture, the arts, all in English, all beyond reach of my children, or any other children from schools like Sabitri.

From left to right: Rimi Chatterjee, Ayesha Das, Bedabrato Pain, Barun Chanda, Anindita Ray, and Anjum Katyal

 I LOVED what the panelists had to say about reading and about education.  These were ideas I’d been trying to instill from the beginning, ideas that come of a broader education that includes understanding material, curiosity, questioning, independent thought, and feeling.  They talked about the negative effects of TV (Remember we don’t have a TV at Shishur Sevay for just this reason).  They held the same criticisms of the Indian education system in creating students who are afraid speak, to question, to think beyond the rigid questions and answers that are the basis of all testing.  Then they presented the program of workshops that would include reading and theater, putting on a production, all the things I wish we could do at Shishur Sevay.  (Yes, of course I’ve tried!)
So here at Starmark were Kolkata’s leading educationists, professors, actors, scientists, speaking a language inaccessible to the poor.  We might as well live in different countries.  You see, when there is common language, it is possible for a child to move from one sphere to another, upward mobility.  I see events all the time but I know my kids can’t go.  Yes, it upsets me, and that’s why I usually just don’t go to these things.  For all the celebration of Tagore and others, Starmark doesn’t seem to hold programs for Bengali speaking children.    It’s fundamentally about class and economics, which is exactly the point.  That’s the divide, English and Bengali.  Even engineers have trouble getting jobs because they can’t get through an interview in English.
The situation in Kolkata is probably worse than it has ever been as we now have an accumulated 28 years of English having been removed from the primary curriculum.  Now that it is being reintroduced there is a shortage of teachers.   The children starting English now come from families where parents did not learn English.  It was a policy that trapped the poor.  It changed because families did everything they could to get their children into the private English medium schools in order to give them opportunities.  This is a culture where education is valued. 
I am always assessing and reassessing my decision to educate the girls in Bengali medium.  I still think I was right.  I thought they were too old to have to lose the time to learn another language and to start learning.  Bengali was their mother tongue, the language of their memories and thoughts.  I wanted them to sound like educated Bengalis when they spoke.  I want them to fit into a Bengali community as much as they can.  They are learning English, but like everything else it is slow.  And for the first three years I had terrible opposition to teaching them English, being accused of robbing them of their culture.  That is SO ironic because it’s what I’ve fought for, for them to have a culture, for them not to be outsiders to the celebrations, the religion, the language of their heritage.  I just don’t want them trapped there.  I want both.   
I spoke briefly with Maya afterwards.  I asked about Bengali.  Yes, she wants to, maybe the next round.   I’m glad I went.  I was forced to think more about the issue of language, and to say what is on my mind.  I want my children to be able to cross the Great Divide.

July 2011
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