Tuesday, July 2, 2013

A tale on culture and language issues in our classrooms

Came across this story that was shared in one of the forums by Yogendar Dutt
The Butterfly In The Tiger's Stomach  - from the Marathi story by Mohan Nanavre

I am Mohan. Let me tell you the story of a little boy called Mhowan.
Mhowan's grandmother was illiterate. She used to go to Market Yard and buy nearly-rotten vegetables. She would set out her little shop on the roadside in Bhokarwadi, and sell these. The people of Bhokarwadi were all very poor. They were masons, porters, daily wage earners. It was a hand-to-mouth existence, and all they could afford was the stuff Mhowan's grandmother sold. But it did not suffice to make ends meet. So Mhowan's mother used to sweep the pavements and streets outside shops and restaurants. She would sort out the waste worth selling, and make a bit of money. When she got a bit of cash, she would buy Mhowan a toffee.
Both mother and grandmother adored the fatherless little boy. But both were illiterate themselves, and were busy all day, slogging to fill their stomachs -- sending Mhowan to school was not something they even considered.
Mhowan was now around eight. He used to trail along behind his mother as she swept the streets. His mother had a cup tied up in her sari. After she swept the street outside a restaurant the owner would pour some tea into the cracked cup. She would call out to Mhowan playing nearby, and share the tea and a biscuit with him.
Many days passed in this manner. But suddenly, one morning, grandma took Mhowan to the Bhokarwadi school. She stood outside and called out to the teacher. "O Master, take this kid into your school. Write his name down. Come on, write! Mhowan is his name." The master looked doubtfully at the boy, his torn clothes, his dirty face and hands, his unwashed body.
"Do you ever bathe the child?" he asked.
"He hates bathing," said grandma, laughing. "Take him into school, he may become smarter." Turning to Mhowan, she told him, "Okay now, don't be naughty and bother the teacher. When you come home, mi chunchuni, chaani dutwaila deel."
The teacher could make nothing of all this. How could he? It was not his language. It was the language of the poor people.
Before she came to the city, Mhowan's grandmother lived in a village. They were very poor there too. They tried to fill their stomachs with begging or doing odd jobs. Sometimes, when they were very hungry, her father and brothers used to steal corn or grain from the fields -- it was only to feed a hungry family, but if they were caught they were beaten up like criminals. To communicate with each other without others understanding them, their community had developed their own special dialect. And that was the dialect grandma spoke now. What she said was, “When you come home, I will make you a yummy dish of mutton.” Mohan got it, of course, but the teacher did not.
So Mhowan began school. He had joined school much later than the other boys, so he was older and larger than his classmates. The teacher put him on the last bench. The backbenchers were a rowdy lot, constantly fooling around, teasing each other. But when they were caught, it was Mhowan who got a thrashing, because he looked the biggest. So a beating every day became a regular thing. Gadekar teacher was always angry. She used to rap Mhowan's knuckles every day. Mhowan's homework was never done; there was no place to study in his house. In the wasti where he lived, fights were breaking out all the time, and Mhowan could not bear to miss the fun. And his mother and grandmother could not help him. They could not even understand the pictures in his books, leave alone the text! So homework never got done, and that added to the beatings.
Mhowan's fingers hurt with the knuckle raps. They hurt so much that he could not even break the dry bhakri that his mother had left for him in a pan. But Mhowan's world had become opened wonderfully since he joined school. The pictures in his books and on the walls of his room filled his days with colour and his nights with dreams. When Gadekar teacher beat him, he used to look at the pictures on the walls – the peacock strutting with his beautiful tail, the giraffe with his long neck, the striped tiger, the colourful butterfly. Every day a beating and every night a new dream.
Every year on September 5, the school celebrated Teachers' Day. At the morning prayers, the headmaster told them, "Every day the teachers ask you questions. On Teachers' Day, you children will get to ask them questions." Mhowan wanted to do something on that day that would win over Gadekar teacher, and make her stop beating him. But what? The answer came from a dream.
One day he came home after an exhausting day, aching from the beatings, tired and hungry, and fell asleep without eating anything. The tiger from the pictures began to prowl in his dreams. The tiger was hungry. He pushed his face into the empty vessels in the kitchen, and turned them over angrily. All he found was some stale stinking bhakri. Well, how could he eat that? He was a tiger after all, even if in a dream! Finally he saw the picture of the butterfly. He swallowed it in one gulp.
The butterfly was still alive and began to flutter around in the tiger's empty stomach. The tiger began to giggle. He rolled about laughing and called out, "Stop, stop! You are tickling me to death!"
"Well," said the butterfly, "You had better sneeze me out, or I will surely tickle you to death." So the tiger gave a mighty sneeze, and out flew the pesky butterfly.
Mohan woke up with a sneeze, to find his grandma tickling his nose to wake him up. The dream gave him an idea. How could he tickle his teacher and make her release him from his daily beatings? A plan began to form.
On Teachers' Day, children asked questions like, "Why did you become a teacher?" or, "How did Shivaji teach the monitor lizard to climb the fort walls?"
But Mhowan asked Gadekar bai, "Tumhi karpati dutawli ka?" The other children began to giggle. The teacher looked blank. "Tumhala bailadi nanwat thikti ka?" Mhowan went on. The giggles began to grow louder. The children were mostly from Mhowan's community, and they knew what he was saying, even if the teacher did not.
"Kachra dhundna pudaal ka naanwat?" was Mhowan's next question, and the class grew a little quiet at this.
"Teacher, this is the language of my family. My grandfather, and even his father, spoke this language. I just wanted you to hear it. What I asked you was, -- did you eat your bhakri? Do you like mutton? And lastly, is gathering garbage good or bad?
Gadekar bai was silent for a while. In fact she was shocked. How could she say if gathering garbage was good or bad, when Mhowan's mother did it for a living? And now she understood why his homework was always undone. From that day on, Mhowan did not get a thrashing. His teacher understood him a little more. She appreciated the fact that he even knew a language that she did not.
The years went by, and Mhowan dropped out of school. He sold vegetables, worked as a doorman, began to buy and sell waste materials. Slowly the dreams faded away. He worked hard all day, hoping for a better tomorrow, but dreams don’t come when you call, and neither do they always come true.
I am Mohan. When I think about Mhowan's school days, I think, a butterfly flew into a tiger's stomach, and managed to escape. But what if the butterfly had got plenty of good education? Where would he have been now? He would have lived as Babasaheb Ambedkar exhorted us to – “Get Educated, Get Organised, Struggle against oppression." Even today, children in Bhokarwadi are dropping out of school and starting to work to help the family. When I think about them, I feel miserable. Then I tell myself Mhowan's story. That's why I am telling it to you.

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