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.

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. LinZi
    Jul 09, 2011 @ 23:34:37

    I am commenting a lot on your blogs these days! 🙂

    I sponsor 5 girls in Kolkata and I have found similar problems with education/books/access. The vast majority of my girls speak Urdu/Hindi at home and go to Urdu medium schools. One of my girls speaks Hindi and goes to a Hindi speaking school, and the last, Bengali. I like to encourage learning so I have often tried to send books for them to have at home– fun books that encourage reading and practice. Every time I have been in India I search for Hindi, Urdu and Bengali Children’s Books. Most of the “modern” bookstores like Crossword only carry English books, or maybe a couple Hindi. Many online bookstores are the same. I recently was able to find Tullika Books, a publishing company, that publishes many books in different Indian languages. I found Hindi and Bengali books galore for younger children– but again I noticed that for older children almost every book is in English only.

    I don’t know if you have ever had any experience with Urdu medium schools in Kolkata, but from my experience, all my girls in the Urdu medium schools repeat grades more often than others, and take longer to write letters. Even at Tulika Books I only found ONE single children’s book in Urdu. I feel like the kids who study in Urdu are isolated by this, and denied access to books and so forth. It is frustrating because at the same time I don’t think it is my right to tell the kids parents that they should study in a Hindi medium school rather than Urdu– though I suspect they would get a better education and have more opportunities.

    I understand exactly what you mean by isolating the poor and the divide. it is so hard for children in non-English medium schools to have the materials and exposure to the world that the English studying children get.

    With Tulika Book Publishers I am hoping to influence them…. I started a campaign to raise money to get books in a variety of Indian languages for the community centers for the sponsored kids. I was able to order 97 books so far, and I keep voicing my opinion that more books should be available in languages other than English. I have created somewhat of a relationship between Tulika and Children International and I hope it will lead to more books in Urdu and books for older children in languages other than English.


  2. malaidoskop
    Jul 11, 2011 @ 21:54:23

    Dear Michelle, I have mixed emotions about your Bengali teaching path. I understand your motivation if you have children with disabilities and learning delays. But for girls who have the chance to become doctors or have a college education, don’t waste their time with Bengali.

    English is the key to success in today’s India or any other country and if you are not fluent in English (no matter if you’re from India, Germany or China) you won’t get far. Bengali is a wonderful language, but as soon as you want to study or have access to good education you will get to a point where you MUST know English. English is the ticket to emancipation. Good English will give a poor child the competitive advantage over his high caste competitor for a college seat, a job or even in matrimony. It is odd and terrible, but that’s the way life is.

    Not only in India, but worldwide. Who cares if the girls speak suddho Bangla, no educated person today does, they converse in English. In my family everyone has been Bengali for hundreds of years and we could probably speak suddho Bangla if we tried real hard (although it feels more odd to me than reading latin). If they want to study Sanskrit in Santiniketan or so then maybe Suddho Bangla makes sense, but otherwise it’s just a dead end.

    Cultural preservation is a laudable cause for museums, but denying the kids the opportunity to really match up to their highcaste competitors is just sad. Talking their polished Bangla will only make them sound awkward among their peers, like someone speaking medieval English (but Beowulf is so pretty, let them speak like Beowulf or like Jane Austen’s novel heroines, which today would only sound weird!).

    Even for a simple clerk job you need English. India is divided by class distinctions and language distinctions. I work in Switzerland with migrant kids and no matter where you go (be it Kolkata or Switzerland) it’s the language that defines which class you belong to. If you don’t speak right, you’re not in. Just like in Pygmalion. If you speak Slang, you won’t get a job. If you don’t speak the Queen’s English, you won’t get admitted to the Master’s course at university. I know many IT specialists from Kolkata here in Switzerland some of whom come from very humble backgrounds, and still, even if they are Managers they are mocked for their weird accents in English and their team mates will not dine with them because they are lowcaste. You can only shrug the casteism off, if you’re smarter, sassier, tougher and cooler than your highcaste peers.


    • Dr. Michelle Harrison
      Jul 12, 2011 @ 07:09:25

      Dear Mala, I wrote a long response to you but the internet went off and I lost it. This will be briefer. Thank you so much for your thoughts, as I have struggled with this all along. Some factors that led to our educating them in Bengali medium:
      1. Their Bengali was totally street Bengali and our intent was not high bengali, but just getting tense, person grammar correct. I’m not talking about the high Bengali of literature.
      2. We had no papers. The same government that gave us the children did not provide papers that could get them into a school. We were able to get the local government school, in cooperation with the local councillor to accept them.
      3. I was the foreigner who faced constant opposition from staff, school, AND the children for trying to make them “British.” Everything English was BAD! The girls even challenged me a couple of years ago, “If you didn’t have to study Bengali in school why do we have to learn YOUR language?” So I answered in French, which is what I learned and said two languages were the norm in school. But please understand the level of opposition if these girls, whom I am raising and supporting would challenge me in this way. They were repeating what they heard.
      4. I did and do want them to feel a culture they appreciate. They love Tagore, reading (in school form) dancing, owning the culture. It is easy to not care about what you already have, namely a culture, but for people who have had none, it is a source of identity and a foundation.
      5. The children with disabilities are more easily taught in English as no one cares enough to oppose me. I want to be able to bring in experts from outside West Bengal to work with them.
      6. The behavior of some of the girls at the beginning was so bad I couldn’t imagine their being tolerated in an English medium school This was correct, but over the four years they have changed. These are children who were abused, lived on their own, and whose main concern was survival, by any means.
      7. I wanted them to be able to think clearly and the fastest way to that seemed to be working with whatever language they had already.
      Thanks again for your comments. If you are back in Kolkata PLEASE visit. Michelle


  3. LinZi
    Jul 13, 2011 @ 09:31:04


    I understand your point– English is important to get ahead these days. But at the same time, I don’t think that that means people should have to be denied education in their mother tongue. Schools can work to accomplish both– and it can be done well with appropriate curriculum planning. With English as my mother tongue, I have learned Hindi as an adult. I have found that often when I visit India I meet many adults who speak English, but did not study in Hindi– so they can only hold basic conversations (i.e. ordering food or asking directions) in Hindi (or their Indian mother tongue). Most of these people are surprised I have study and are impressed that I know how to read and write Hindi, and have somewhat of a good vocabulary on different topics. Many do not themselves, and learned very little in their school system (most upper or upper middle class).

    If we look at an individual child we can say “They need to learn English to get ahead.” but what if we look at children as a group– and future adults. Will they be able to read famous Indian literature? Be able to talk to their grandparents? Will these other languages die out or become the languages of the rural poor— creating a further divide? Will stories, plays, historical documents be relegated to the land of experts and PhD students?

    My fiance went to a Hindi medium school throughout. He also learned English as a class. He worked at it and is fluent in both languages. He now studies Hindi-English translation and is a passionate reader of Kabir and Bakti poetry. If he had gone to an English medium school he would probably not have the exposure and the skills to read and analyze Bakti. He would not be writing short stories in Hindi. I think he is a good example of how schools can strive for both.


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July 2011
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