In Mrinal Kalita’s novel, Under the Bakul Tree, Anubhav Sir changes the way mathematics is taught to the students of Class 10 in a village school in Assam. Challenging the rote system, the new teacher breaks down the formulas, applying logic and creative problem-solving techniques instead. Suddenly the teenagers are no longer bored and fidgety. Next, he sets three maths questions for homework, which they must solve in seven days.

The questions set by the young teacher are pivotal. They become another pathway that leads Nirmal, one of the brightest students in Anubhav Sir’s class, back to his once-academic rival Ashim, who has been forced to drop out of school.

“The intention of embedding these problems into the story was to show to our students that creative thinking plays a pivotal role not only in literature but also in subjects like mathematics,” Kalita told me in an email interview about his Young Adult book. “But one cannot solve these problems mechanically merely by applying some formulae. Some readers and students told me that they had found these problems very interesting and they had a taste of a different type of mathematics in them and that was my intention.”

What follows is a story of friendship, empathy, and determination; one that doesn’t hesitate to challenge the prevalent education system, and makes a searing statement about the state of the environment.

First published in 2015, Bakul Phular Dare won the Sahitya Akademi’s Bal Sahitya Puraskar in 2021. Now the book is in its 47th reprint. The English edition has been translated from the Assamese by Partha Pratim Goswami.

A failing education system

Kalita said that it was his experience as a teacher of mathematics – he is an associate professor at Pandu College in Guwahati – that drove him to write the novel.

“I have my own experiences as a student and as a teacher of mathematics and I feel that our education system lacks the scope for creativity,” he explained. “In our schools and colleges, mathematics is not taught as a creative subject but as a drill-like activity. Students are encouraged to memorise the formulae and use those to solve some problems which after a certain point becomes tedious and monotonous. Moreover, I have my own opinion about our degraded social, political and cultural scenario. I have also seen the plight of the poor students of my village. All these experiences, feelings and thoughts drove me to write the novel.”

And for the author, not having the knowledge of literary theories was a blessing in disguise. “As I don’t know what a short story or a novel is, how to write it and what its characteristics are – I write it in my own way,” he said. “Lack of knowledge of literary theories thus may add to the originality of a piece of writing.”

And in doing so, Kalita has created two memorable protagonists: Nirmal and Ashim. Nirmal is determined to get Ashim back to school while his friend is facing a devastating reality – an alcoholic father and a mother who is working all sorts of hours to keep house. Ashim drops out of school and joins a quarry as a labourer, splitting stones. But when Anubhav Sir joins their school, the teenagers find hope and encouragement in his original and refreshing teaching methods. And his faith in his students, especially Nirmal and Ashim.

Kalita’s story doesn’t hold back from making sharp sociopolitical commentaries. At times it does feel a bit didactic. But then, truths about the failing education system, environmental degradation and severe livelihood insecurities are etched in the pages with an honesty that makes for a compelling read.

‘There was a fear that sociopolitical commentary might affect the readability of the novel,’ said Kalita. But the story and the sociopolitical commentary on education were equally important to me. So I tried to embed those things through conversations and arguments between two young teachers, Anubhav and Jilmil. One may feel that the story slows down a little bit in those parts – but it was intentional and necessary. If I scrap out those things there is no point of writing this novel.”

Environment at the heart

Further, Under the Bakul Tree is one of the finest environmental commentaries of our times. At one point, Ashim looks up at the hill and takes in the bare and stark landscape and wonders if it is suffering from some disease. He then looks at a dislodged boulder with affection. “He began to feel as if the boulder was his sister Ajoli or as if it was he himself, as if the hill was his father and mother and that the homeless birds flying here and there were their lost laughter, love and care,” writes Kalita. “The hill, the illegal quarry, that ruthless attack on the hill and the environment – all are drawn from reality which is happening in my village, happening everywhere,” said Kalita. “The environment is one of the central issues in the novel.”

At the same time, the story is rooted in the natural beauty of Assam, and Ashim’s favourite evergreen tree, which gives the book its title. “You can see the Bakul tree is portrayed as a symbol in the novel – Ashim often took shelter under the Bakul tree in times of grief,” Kalita points out. “The Bakul tree which was once planted by his father was solace for Ashim when he lost the love of his father.”

When Bijal Vachharajani is not reading a children's book, she's writing or editing one.

Under the Bakul Tree, Mrinal Kalita, translated from the Assamese by Partha Pratim Goswami, Penguin India.