Friday, July 15, 2005

Instruments of learning

An incident from Rohinton Mistry's award-winning novel A Fine Balance:

India. The years just after the Second World War on the eve of independence. Two young boys from the Untouchable caste, and therefore precluded from education, spy on the children in the local school. They are attracted by the songs, the voices of children reciting the alphabet, the squeak of chalk on slate.

One day the teacher takes the class out into the yard to practice a dance. The boys climb in a window. They open the cupboard where the teaching materials are kept -- the books, the maps, the charts, the chalks and slates. They are fascinated, eager to touch. So rapt are they in their excitement that they fail to notice the return of the teacher. The teacher drags the boys into the yard and in the presence of the upper caste children administers savage beatings.

That evening the boys' father goes to see the village elder, an upper caste Brahmin known for his sage powers of justice and arbitration. Humbly, the father suggests that the teacher might deserve punishment, or at least chastisement, for so viciously thrashing his sons. The Brahman listens patiently. "But the teacher had no choice," he finally intones. "It was a terrible offense." The boys polluted the schoolroom. They touched the instruments of learning. They defiled the slates and chalks which upper caste children would touch.

The Brahmin adds: "You are lucky there wasn't a holy book like the Bhagavad Gita in that cupboard, no sacred texts. Or the punishment would have been more final."