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No sharp satire in the classroom

  • Krishan Chander’s popular satire on red tape has been dropped from the class X syllabus
  • The CISCE has not indicated why the story was removed

Krishan Chander
Krishan Chander

Earlier this month, the Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations (CISCE) dropped the Hindi short story Jamun Ka Ped (The Jamun Tree) from the class X syllabus. Its author, Krishan Chander (1914-77), was a prolific, celebrated writer of novels, short stories and radio plays in Urdu and Hindi. After his story Annadata was adapted by film-maker K.A. Abbas as Dharti Ke Laal, he wrote for the big screen as well. He was part of the Progressive Writers Movement, a contemporary of Saadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chughtai, and the humanist, critical ethos of that group can be seen in his novels and stories.

Chander could be searing when writing about injustice and inhumanity, but he also had a brilliant light touch. This is evident in Jamun Ka Ped, published in 1966. In this short satire, a poet is trapped when a jamun tree falls on him on the Secretariat lawns in Delhi. The gardener who discovers him runs for the watchman, who fetches the clerk, who goes to the superintendent. This chain of command foreshadows what comes next, as the suffering poet’s “file" is passed on from the agriculture ministry to horticulture to foreign affairs. By the time a decision is taken, it’s too late.

The official order by the CISCE said the story “will not be tested for the year 2020 and 2021 examination", but gave no explanation as to why it was being dropped. One can only assume that someone found its satirical takedown of red tape and the establishment’s indifference to the suffering of the common man offensive.

Why now, though? The story has been in class X textbooks for at least four years and was well-known for decades. There are some details that are vaguely contemporary—a prime minister on a foreign trip, official apathy towards an “intellectual"—but nothing that suggests grounds for removal from textbooks.

A few weeks before the CISCE’s decision, Bharatiya Janata Party MLA Appachu Ranjan had written a letter demanding the removal of references to Tipu Sultan from school history textbooks in Karnataka, allegedly on the grounds that the 18th century ruler was a tyrant who persecuted Hindus. Chief minister B.S. Yeddyurappa reiterated this demand at a press meet, adding that they had stopped Tipu Jayanti celebrations in the state. A final decision hasn’t been taken yet, but these incidents are a reminder that it’s extremely difficult, if imperative, to keep political messaging out of education.

Over the phone, poet, critic and Sahitya Akademi award-winner Ashok Vajpeyi says he doesn’t know why the story was removed, though he adds: “Krishan Chander was an important progressive writer, and at the moment you have an ideological set-up that doesn’t admit of any dissent or disagreement." He does feel the stifling of humorous critique is a worrying sign. “It’s of course a story that has a fantastic tone, but its removal reflects a mindset which is unwilling to admit that absurdities really exist in our time. The story tries to bring the reader closer to reality—removing it would mean there’s an attempt to keep young people away from reality."

Dilip Kumar, principal, CMCL Vidya Bharati School, Lumshnong, Meghalaya, and a long-time Hindi teacher, believes someone in power may have “indirectly directed" the board to drop the story, as it mentions incompetent ministries and a prime minister (the CISCE, it should be noted, is a non-governmental board, unlike the Central Board of Secondary Education). He says it was a popular tale with students, and that the removal may have the opposite effect of what is intended. “At times what you try to suppress, it becomes more popular."

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