With all this talk about the cool new ICSE literature syllabus, I have been transported to the furiously uncool days of my ICSE life. For those who wish to gloat over my exact age, said decade was sometime between moon landing and “reference to the context”.

Wait, what?

That is, it was that long ago, when, for one’s Class X finals one would have been required to know most of Merchant of Venice by heart. It was not only because our teacher, by all accounts a true-blue Shakespearephile, wanted us to respect the traditional system of reading the plays (she did of course), but also because it was, indeed, very important to know the exact location of verses for a pretty hardcore section in the final examinations, culminating in the ICSE and ISC, titled rather mystically as “Reference to the Context”.

Random lines would be provided and one would literally have to contextualise them. Offer the Act and Scene, at the outset, who said to whom, and what followed from there. It was pure torture, but later, when I studied English honours in college, I realised that good old “Reference to the Context” was a fantastic way to study Shakespeare.

I also submit that those of us who did not go on to study literature afterwards did not have any reason to revise their opinion of the pure torture. They probably prefer their Julius Caesar Zulfiqar style, and do not really know what to do with all that Renaissance English. They would have swapped Hamlet for Harry, any day.

A break

In that sense, perhaps the willingness to open up the English syllabus to include texts as diverse as detective fiction and MAUS (Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel set mosty in the time of the Holocaust) is definitely an interesting move, albeit one which should be reflected upon with some seriousness.

In our time, for most of school life, ICSE English comprised two papers: Literature and Language. There were twenty-mark projects for each, decided internally by the school. (In Class Ten, our teacher, Mrs Anjali Sen, had asked us to write an essay on the Kosovo Crisis, for one of the two projects. Now, that was pretty radical.)

While the Language paper had reading comprehension, an essay, a letter, a precis (sometimes) and tons of grammar, the Literature paper had all the conventional genres covered: there was poetry (Sarojini Naidu, Wordsworth, Derozio and Tagore all made brief appearances over the years), short stories, a novel (an abridged Little Women in Class Four, an abridged Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Class Five, an abridged Pride and Prejudice in Class Seven and the original Great Expectations in Classes Eleven and Twelve) and, of course, Shakespeare.

Was it stodgy? It was.

But if it needs a re-jig, is Harry Potter And... really the way to go forward?

Let’s consider.

“The many uses of literature in life” and other pitches

At a time when the teaching of English literature in universities and colleges across the world, especially in former colonies, has confronted the need to challenge “white”, “universalist”, and “male” principles of syllabi-engineering and canon-creating, there can be no doubt that such winds of change are welcome in the school premises too. However, these do need to be winds of change and not a replacement of one stodgy with lazy.

  • What ought to be considered the fundamental reason for a change in syllabi?
  • The need to provide students with content closer to their lives.
  • The motivation to introduce post-colonial, race-sensitive ideas to inform their narratives about the world.
  • The necessity that students enjoy reading recommended texts rather than labour through them.

A combination of all three, perhaps.

The whole point of this exercise then will be defeated if we slip into the lazy if popular decision of teaching Harry Potter and Hercule Poirot in the classrooms (do not be mistaken, I love Potter and Poirot dearly, I do.) To allow a global popular canon to replace a global “classic” one is fraught with trouble, and defeats the very context of change – to introduce the local and the non-Western into the canon. Because of the way power flows, invariably “global” literary successes in the context of English literature flow downwards from the centres of Anglo-American power.

To beat this very trap, enter translations!

Multilingual worlds

The Indian identity is configured in many languages. Because of historical reasons, English has come to be used as the primary – certainly not the only – language of cultural transaction. Though a Hindi translation of an Odia classic would be closer to the original than an English translation, due to reasons of the market, the English translation seems more common. If anyone ought to take advantage of that circumstance, it is the English literature classroom!

The Indian publishing scene is finally ripe with superb translations, and most of these are quite competitively priced. In my opinion, English translations of contemporary literature from the different Indian languages should comprise a significant part of the rejigged syllabi. As also contemporary translations from Sanskrit drama or epics.

Yes, Satyajit Ray’s vastly entertaining Feluda stories will be taught, in translation. And that’s a shot in the arm for translations in the classroom. But is this really the most stimulating and challenging text from the country for schoolgoing young adults?

Indian writing in English is constantly producing fine, cutting edge work. If anything, its inclusion is not only appropriate – but also deeply vital to the project of change. Whether children’s literature, novels, memoirs or narrative non-fiction, the choices are fascinating. (Indeed, that is to be the subject of a future piece. A dream syllabus for the literature classroom.)

It is fantastic that we are thinking of graphic novels (pricey though they are) and popular fiction as “acceptable” forms of education within the classroom, but for the exercise to be more than tokenism, the content must be built to reflect a more inclusive narrative. It’s a great idea, sure. But instead of knee-jerk populism, let’s find texts that complicate received power structures (un-arguably Anglo-American ones) and expose the classroom to fun books that ask the right questions, whether about India or the rest of the world.

Devapriya Roy is the author of two novels, one long-dragged-out-and-nearly-abandoned PhD thesis on the Natyashastra, and most recently ofThe Heat and Dust Project: The Broke Couple’s Guide to Bharat, which she co-wrote with husband Saurav Jha.