It was a fear that came to me in the most unexpected manner possible. As my toddler son discovered the wonderful world of storytelling, I treated the two of us to a collection of fairy tales, stories that you and I, and possibly every school-going child in the world are familiar with, stories like Rapunzel and Hansel and Gretel. Of course, I had conveniently forgotten the literary criticism I had read about the darker side of such tales and what do you expect from authors that call themselves Brothers Grimm, but believe me, you don’t want to explain to a two-and-a-half-year-old why someone would want to steal a baby to punish someone for stealing from their garden! Yes, that’s the setting of the lovely-blonde-hairwashed-sweet-smelling Rapunzel story. And imagine telling your kid the story of a father who plots to abandon his children in the forest — it totally makes sense to me why my parents never read Hansel and Gretel out to me when I was a kid: It was probably out of kindness.
But I should have saved my horror for the future, for the time when my child grows older and starts going to school and encounters textbooks. I may have saved my child some nightmares by censoring and bleeping out cruelties by witches and step-mommies now, but I have no idea how I will fix the damage that will be unleashed on his receptive brain when he starts reading what’s passing off as approved syllabus.
Let me explain with an instance that my colleagues reported on this week about a Class VI text published by the renowned S Chand & Company. Our attention was drawn to it by some alert teachers in Jamia University who had probed the matter after complaints by some students. The book called ‘New Healthway’ by David S Poddar on Health and Sex Education finds a very indelicate way of advocating vegetarianism. On page 56, it says of non-vegetarians:
“They easily cheat, tell lies, they forget promises, they are dishonest and tell bad words, steal, fight and turn to violence and commit sex crimes.” Then, it goes on to describe how it is waste matter that makes non-vegetarian food tasty and how tribes in Japan and Mexico live longer because they are vegetarian!
Yes, you may think the khap is outrageous and laugh at them for suggesting eating chow mein leads to rapes, but there is a possibility that the khap leader who said this was just really studious and read his texts diligently. Children like my son will probably be told that his parents are evil because they’ve fed him all kinds of meats and fish from the time he was born. And diet is not the only issue on which this textbook takes a unique position. While explaining the reproductive system and the rites of passage, the author says: “To get married without a bad name is a dream of every young girl.”
In a report titled ‘Regulatory Mechanisms For Textbooks and Parallel Textbooks Taught in Schools outside the Government System’ by the HRD ministry’s CABE Committee, Prof Zoya Hassan and Prof Gopal Guru called for a National Textbook Council which would have a panel of academic experts to review textbooks. In their 80-odd page report, they give several instances of inappropriate and disturbing material in school books, in states across the country. For instance, while speaking of a Class V history text from Maharashtra, the report says: “The same book develops prejudices at an early age by referring to oppression and cheating by Mughal rulers. It also contains the illogical statement, ‘Shivaji had many Muslims working for him but they were all loyal to Swaraj’, which betrays an assumption that religious identities override political allegiances, and also that Shivaji’s Raj was synonymous with people’s independence.”
This was in 2005 and the reason why you haven’t heard of the textbook council and the reason why vegetarian zealots are threatening to terrorize our children is because the council idea was vetoed by states earlier this year. They obviously didn’t want to give up mind control through control of these text-books by handing over power to a group of academics. I guess politicians are a different breed who don’t have time to look through their children’s books. Because if I were in their place, I wouldn’t be getting all hot and bothered about some cartoons making fun of Indira Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru and BR Ambedkar. I’d be worried about the prejudices that were being drilled into my children — against minorities, against women, and most importantly, being a family that sees food as more than nourishment, prejudices about food choices.