Leaving 2009 in Style with Coaching, English Literature and 'Boycott':
Thanks to POSGAT

By Dr. Ksh. Imokanta Singh *

Mr. Boycott must be celebrating with his final hilarious laugh in his centuries old grave, with his crackling jaws. If he is in the heaven his soul must be really boasting amongst the innumerable souls, especially in the firmament just above the geography of Manipur. He must be thinking it is better to be a king soul, worshipped and revered by the souls in this part of heaven, than to be an unknown soul amongst the teeming famous souls in the western part of the heaven.

Why at all? Because, his name has been kept alive and kicking, guarded, fed bellyful, pampered, worshipped ... zealously by people of Manipur, though he was despised and ostracised by those whose rights he tried to curtail.
(The word boycott entered the English language during the Irish "Land War" and is derived from the name of Captain Charles Boycott, the estate agent of an absentee landlord, the Earl Erne, on Achill Island in County Mayo, Ireland, who was subject to social ostracism organized by the Irish Land League in 1880. In September that year protesting tenants demanded from Boycott a substantial reduction in their rents. He not only refused but also evicted them from the land. Charles Stewart Parnell, in his Ennis Speech proposed that, rather than resorting to violence, everyone in the locality should refuse to deal with him. Despite the short-term economic hardship to those undertaking this action, Boycott soon found himself isolated—his workers stopped work in the fields and stables, as well as the house. Local businessmen stopped trading with him, and the local postman refused to deliver mail... the word was used by The Times in November 1880 as a term for organized isolation. ) -

Swearing by your legendary name, Mr. Boycott, majority of the population of Manipur pour their emotions, like ghee, into the sacramental fire of class boycott, social boycott, this boycott and that boycott. Mr. Boycott, please do not remain contented by such gestures. If you are already satisfied with such little things as four month long class boycott, then how the denizens of this land can brace up their courage to propitiate you to bless this land again and again. Forgive me Mr. Boycott, for I am not interested in appeasing you with any form, be it class boycott or any boycott, though it may sound sacrilegious. In fact, I am not here to discuss the 'goods' and 'bads' of the just ended class boycott. My brain is too numb to be judgmental and to engage in a debate on this very issue. There are surplus amount of big brains for such big issues. That is precisely the reason why I am interested and made for small, small issues and plans. I am here to tell my, nay our own small story.

In the summer of 2009, brains of some like-minded youth of our village converged to form an informal group (like Bryan Adams did in the summer of '69 to form a pop band). We decided to name it POSGAT, acronym of Pole Star Guardians' Association, Thinungei, to try and emulate the ever guiding Pole Star. Motive? No, no, not to save this, what they call sinking ship called Manipur. We do not have the tactics, money, and political back-up to call it a state level or national level body.

In fact, the very idea was to shape it as non-political as possible. We thought to leave the 'guardianship' of the whole of Manipur to 'powerful' mushrooming organisations. Yes, our motive was simple and small but not necessarily with a small end i.e. to make an endeavour to improve the educational quality, to mould a generation of critical minds to work for itself and for its locality, if not for the whole Manipur. It has always been a reminder that it is better to leap like a small cat than to crawl like a big tortoise. If one small step we make is able to impact positively then it is far better than slumbering and snoring like a giant Kumbh Karn.

To prove that we meant what we had put down in letters, we decided to hold a free coaching programme for two months from the 1st of November to the 31st of December, 2009 for the students who are appearing in the coming high school leaving examination and exclusively for the students from Thinungei village. As the news spread by the words of the mouth students from the neighbouring villages and as far away places as Moirang and Leimatak started joining with full zeal, braving the chill of the December morning. Then, why and how we could send these students back? We had to modify our previous agenda of exclusivity and convert it into inclusiveness. Everybody who had the passion for learning was welcomed.

Wait a minute! Are not you having the impression that we decided to hold the coaching programme so as to compensate the loss incurred by the students because of the class boycott? If you are thinking so, then you are on the wrong side. We are re-iterating here that we are not related and interested in the class boycott scene. Boycott or not we were determined to stick to our aims and objectives. Coaching programme was long decided before the class boycott was born and we are proud to claim that it was a huge success with the help of well established, selfless and devoted teachers of Science, Mathematics and English from our own village, Ningthoukhong and Moirang. Learning the contents given in the syllabus was very much on our agenda but these students learned something more. They had been exposed to the world view and also social etiquettes, like how to keep the environment clean as a responsible person, even how to yawn in public etc.

Now turn for my story! To start with I am not a professional teacher of English literature but a full time bureaucrat. But then English literature or any literature for that matter is not and cannot be the fiefdom of those professionals teaching literature in schools, colleges and universities. If it is so then, what about persons like Amitav Ghosh, a profound novelist but anthropologist by formal education? Never mind, it was a real treat for me to reintroduce myself to the crests and troughs of English literature. I was entrusted with the task of understanding and making understand the short stories, poetry and drama included in the new text book 'Let's Learn English' (Literature Reader) of Class X, approved by the Board of Secondary Education, Manipur. Luckily it did not turn out to be a maze.

The text book has six short stories, six poems and one play. First priority was to understand these texts in Manipuri since the students still think in their mother tongue. Then they would be able to convert the thoughts and knowledge into English (in case they are well versed, in terms of writing, with English language). I think it is very important that students understand the subject matter thoroughly. This means they have to swallow, digest and absorb the texts, not just gobbling up the notes prepared by someone in some 'guide book'.

The students should be able to think 'out of the box' and act accordingly. We did not want to produce and reproduce clones of parrot but critical young minds. This is contradictory to what we see amongst the Mission or 'English' school going children. In fact, these schools are producing parrots which babble what their 'rhyme' teachers thrust on them. So, for them, for instance, 'twinkle twinkle little star ...' does not exist in Manipuri but only in English. Likewise, 'mango' remains only mango not 'heinou' for them. When these children grow up, what they will do to our language, let us imagine together. They feel low-browed in counting in ama, ani, ahoom...but high-browed in one, two, three.... This way, a generation speaking 'singjooed' language is created (I do not claim that I am a purist). They are not to be blamed since this culture is the creation of our 'educated' 'English' school Sirs and Madams.

Before I digress too far, let me pull forward the string i.e. English literature. Teaching literature, very challenging! Built on the base of reality but with seemingly contradictory expressions with equally sounding words, the world of literature is a different world yet connected to this world. Life is not saturated with facts and figures only, but fakes, imagination, fantasy, and dream occupy a mammoth portion of our lives. This is where metaphors, metonyms, synodoches, paradigms etc. are integral to our lives and literature too. This enables us to call beautiful Thambal's face thambal (lotus).

How tasteless and boring life would be if we talked, thought, lived with numbers only! So, one should keep all these points when he/she engages himself/herself in teaching literature. One should be ready to cross the barriers of society and day-to-day language, at least while communicating in the class. Sometimes, there could be some miscommunications between the teacher and students if either of them is not able to understand what literature is all about. In this case, one may not be ready and able to cross such barriers since he/she might be quite entrenched within the already existing structure. He/she has been programmed to think, act, and speak in some conventional ways.

In fact, society is one of the most crooked programmers of all times. For instance, when I discuss the love and romance between Miranda and Ferdinand in 'The Tempest', some students were uncomfortable with the words and feelings. And the discussion on what beauty is all about interested many and disgusted some since such things are a taboo topic in this part of the world at least in the public space (do we think discussing love, romance, and beauty with students of class X is inappropriate? If so blame the Editors of the text book). I will not say that our society has been quite hypocritical and I do not also have the courage to say that it is not. But the question here is tearing the fabric of existing structure for some other structure.

Connecting the texts to relevant examples and personal experiences gives the texts extra mileage and I assume that this also keeps the adrenaline level of the students high. I tried to connect words with geography (like drawing maps of the places mentioned in the texts), Science (like connecting reactiveness of some elements with human emotions), Mathematics (like intelligence is inversely proportionate to emotion) etc. This way, words are etched on the mind of the students and find their relevance even when they study other subjects. Reading the texts dryly makes them 'de-contextualised' and exhale in what we call 'yawning'. (To tell you the truth, I also taught the students how to yawn in public as mentioned elsewhere).

Yes, I really tried and succeeded to a great extent since I considered myself to be a connoisseur of dreams, imaginations and fantasy. Before I wind up, I think it is imperative to put across some ideas to the learned editors of the text book so that we can together converge our minds for a better compilation. Comparison is indispensable. So I would like to compare this text book with the old one. In terms of texts, there have been substantial changes, some good and some not so good.

The illustrations in the old book are impressive which are not there in the new one. The brief accounts on the writers and poets included in the old one are missing in the new one. I think it is important for the students to know how the writer lived, thought and wrote. This means what situation influenced him to come out with the piece. (I researched from books and internet to gather information on these writers to give extra knowledge to these deprived students. Is there enough or spare time for our old and spent teachers to do the same?! Do we not have the impression that only the students are to study but not the teachers?)

The next suggestion is regarding the 'Glossary and Notes'. When editors prepared them they should have kept the standards of the weakest and average students in mind. Meanings of some words are still not clear or grasped or easily understandable. Let me take up some examples for the benefit of the editors. Meaning of 'cross' is given as 'provoked, irritated' (in The Tempest); for 'caprice' 'whim' (The Bet); for 'hempen' 'made of hemp' (The Frill); for 'withering' 'crushingly scornful' (The Conjurer's Revenge); for 'whimsically' 'capriciously' (The Pathfinder) etc. These given meanings are not self-explanatory and to know the meanings of these 'meanings' one has to again spare time to look up dictionary (I doubt all the students and teachers have one in hand!). One alternative which the editors might consider would be to give the meanings in Manipuri.

There is specifically one case if one translates it differently, the meaning of the whole text will go differently. I am talking about the meaning of 'with a sigh' given as 'with regret' in the poem 'The Road Not Taken' of Robert Frost. 'with regret' may be true in literal meaning but my understanding is that if the phrase is delved with contextually, the meaning is misleading. Can't it be 'with relief' instead? In this poem Robert Frost chose the road not travelled much by others and he succeeded in travelling further and farther and achieved what others could not.

Then, in the last stanza he tells 'I shall be telling with a sigh... I took the one less travelled by, And that has made all the difference.' The simple question here is 'would Robert Frost keep on writing about stereotypes and clichés instead of something different?' He seems to be celebrating, instead of expressing remorse, the roads taken by some people to prove that they are different from the rest and achieved something for the whole human kind. I am proposing this way of reading the poem to the editors.

Let us now return to our story again. The road we travelled was an un-trodden one, at least in my village, and it has made all the difference (borrowing from Robert Frost). It gave satisfied smiles to the parents and well-wishers; a new lease of life to the students and heart burns to some adversaries since there are some who always try to see the darker sides. We took these people also positively since negative energy only kills one's health, and mental balance. We believe that if we stand united we can withstand the tempest of numerous petty politics of the family, locality and village.

This part of the mission well-accomplished we bade goodbye to 2009 with fitting celebration throughout the night of the 31st December. The journey we embarked will show its own course as we move ahead with a positive mind intact. We at POSGAT have a firm belief in:
'Do not have great expectations for rewards, do your best and leave the rest'

* Dr. Ksh. Imokanta Singh (MFS and Special Officer, The Directorate of MIS) contributes regularly to The author can be contacted at kimokanta(at)yahoo(dot)com
This article was webcasted on January 24th, 2010.

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