Seven months ago, one afternoon I most happily stepped into the compound of my village school, named M.E. School, Subarnapur.I don’t think I knew it then when I was studying there –that was seventy years ago – that it was set up in 1858, during our First War of Independence (the outsiders had called it “Sepoy Mutiny”). Seventy years ago it was known as one of the best “minor” schools in the entire Banki- Athagarg area.
A young teacher, probably in his early thirties, came to meet me. It was some holiday, so he was relaxed and was willing to talk to me, an eighty year old, who was saying he had studied there. He asked who the head master was during my time, just to check whether I was telling him the truth. I said “Sri Paramananda Mishra”. He went to the office and returned with a smile. We talked about various things and then I asked him about the quality of education there now. He said it was nothing to feel good about. Parents, who could afford, were sending their children toprivate English medium schools. Then he gave his reason for this. What he said was refreshingly different from what the specialists in Odisha say in this regard, at least in public. “The English-medium schools have what we don’t have here”, he said.
“When you were studying here”, he explained, “you were receiving good beatingfor bad performance in studies and indiscipline. Now there is no beating. Children do not do their homework. They are inattentive in the class. There is no discipline. We are kind of helpless.” “What can a teacher do”, he asked, “if the learner does not want to learn and the teacher cannot discipline him? No one understands our problem. Everyone blames us for the decline in standard. We are the easy targets.” “This is not the case in the private English medium schools”, he continued.” “Only government schools are dandamukta (punishment- free)”, he said. I wanted to spend more time with him but there were compulsions. I had to leave. “Mukti (being free) from danda (punishment) had resulted in mukti from patha (education)”– this would be a good summing up of what he told me about the present situation.
I did some fact finding about what he had said about the English medium schools. But before that, a little about the beating in my times. Caning of the child by the teacher was socially approved; just that it must not be too severe so as to cause severe pain or injury in the child’s body. There were five teachers in our school; except for the head master, who would not hurt the proverbial fly, everyone used the cane. Only one of them was cane-happy.
How often and with what severity the cane would be used on a child was not an arbitrary matter, not even for the cane-happy teacher. If a child’s family was influential in the village, he would not escape beating but would not be beaten at the drop of a hat. If the teacher was a child’s private tutor, the child would receive considerate beating from him. Quite understandable, considering the way of the world.
Only two categories of children escaped beating. The girls, who were very few (most girls in the village not studying beyond Class III) were not caned; their ears were boxed but carefully, so as not to hurt much. This was in strict conformitywith the prevalent attitude of the parents as the care-taker of the girl child (jhiajanama para gharaku: the girl is born to go to another’s house). Trouble awaited a teacher if in the excitement of boxing the ear or the ears, he forgot the limit.
There were four boys in my class who sat on the last bench close to the window. They were four or five years older to us. It is mainly for this reason that there was no interaction between them and us. They were from poor families and were very poor in studies but they escaped the cane. Sometimes, angry with their work, our cane-happy teacher would move menacingly towards them, with his cane raised but just six inches from the target, he would stop with the cane still raised. He surely considered the consequences of hitting the boy: before stepping inside his house, he must have a bath, wash the clothes he was wearing while caning the boy and change his sacred thread and more – quite a hassle. The urge for beating had to be controlled in time. Do not argue that in the case of caning, only the cane, not the user of the cane, touched the victim. It’s the same thing really. The touch is transferred from the cane to the user of the cane. This was the prevalent view.
To return to what the teacher had said about punishment in the private English-medium schools. I asked a senior student of one of the best English medium schools in Bhubaneswar and two language teaching experts about it in the same city. The student said that beating was very much there but not in Class IX and X. The teachers did not want to take the risk with the senior boys, who could resist, say, by clutching the teacher’s hand. Once that happened, the teacher would lose face in the class. The experts told me that in the coaching classes, both school and post-school, caningand boxing of the ears was very much there, which had the guardian’ support. After all, they were paying so much money and their ward must not be allowed to neglect studies and become a wayward. So the teacher of theSubarnapur School was correct – only the government schools were dandamukta. There was danda where learning took place.
This connection between learning and caning is not confined to India. The expression, “spare the rod and spoil the child” is not of Indian origin. “The whipping boy”, the one who received beating from the prince’s tutor in the prince’s presence for the royal’s errors, existed elsewhere, although many have maintained that there was never really a whipping boy. Understandable; to disagree would be politically incorrect. We live in times when politically correct is more highly valued than factually correct. In any case, there has never been a whipping boy at any time in India’s educational system.One does the karma and someone else receives the phala isn’t a very popular idea here.
In the context of this reflection on learning and caning, the following from the “Atmacharita” (autobiography) of Phakirmohan Senapati, the great Odia novelist, educationist and thinker is of much interest. He had lost his parents very early in his life and his grandmother was taking care of him. She was living with her elder son, who was “badabapa” (father’s elder brother) to Phakirmohan. The bada papa was cruel towards him. He would encourage the abadhana (teacher) to beat him. At the end of the month, when the abadhana would come to him for his fee, he would tell him that he wasn’t teaching the child at all, because he did not see any marks on his back. The teacher understood the import of his words. So,when the time came for the fees, one morning, the teacher would bare the pupil’s back and hit him hard with the cane ten to twelve times. The badabapa and the bada ma (his wife) would relish the sound of the howling of the nine year old orphan as much as the sound of the cane as it was hitting its target. In the lack of a term in pedagogical literature for this, let’s coin an expression: “sponsored caning”.
Sometimes caning a child, without regard to his status, for errors in his work can lead to disastrous consequences, as we learn from Phakirmohan Senapati’s “Sirajuddaulanka chatashali o gurudakshina (Sirajud-Daulah’s early education and his ritual fee to his teacher)”. Soon after he became the Nawab of Bengal, he sent for Kuli Khan, his teacher who had taught him Persian when he was a child.The old teacher, by then well-known in the town for his knowledge of the language, promptly arrived in the durbar, expecting rewards from the Nawab. In the rudest language, Siraj asked him if he remembered that he had hit him with his cane twice one day for making mistakes in studies. By the way, there was no whipping boy facility available to the teacher. “Didn’t you know that I would become the Nawab one day?” he thundered. “Cut him into two”, he ordered the executioner. The executioner hesitated. “Do it at one”, shouted the Nawab at the executioner, “or else, I will cut you both into two”. What happened next need not be told.
Incidentally, if you are interested in the full narrative, it is there in “Phakir Mohan Granthabali”, Volume 2, edited by Professor Debendra Kumar Dash. It is published by Grantha Mandir, Cuttack. It’s there in the pages 379-380.
I can say a great deal more on the subject but let that remain for some other day. In case you are interested.
(The views expressed are the writer’s own)
Retd. Professor of Linguistics and English, IIT Kanpur
Email: [email protected]
(Images from the net)