Book review

Laughter, rote-learning, dreaming: How Narendra Modi wants junior Janardans to prepare for exams

‘Exam Warriors’, the Prime Minister’s handbook for students, is a mish-mash of unrelated suggestions.

The British got A History of the English Speaking Peoples. The Germans got Mein Kampf. The Americans got Profiles in Courage. At one time, India got The Discovery of India. And even The Insider.

These days we get Exam Warriors. By Narendra Modi. That’s how the title of books by the chief executives of various countries roll.

The strange

We start with Mantra 1: an exhortation to treat exams as festivals. “Holi spreads cheer and forgiveness”. (“Forgiveness”? Wasn’t Holika burned while Prahlad survived? But no matter.) Similarly, exams must spread…something, but what? Everyone needs to work out for themselves what the Festival of Exams represents to themselves.

We then move from the vague to the clichéd. “Your Exams Test Your Current Preparation, Not You!”, Mantra 2 exclaims before retreating into a APJ Abdul Kalamesque anecdote of failing one exam and yet achieving a different kind of success. On turning the page, the examinee is told to write a letter to his exam. “Dear Exam, I am not afraid of you because…”

Right.

The mood then changes, from celebration to humour – why, we are not told. Examinees are encouraged to “laugh your way into the exam hall, and laugh out of it”. Apparently laughing fosters relaxation and relaxation increases the ability to recall. Now, research into the psychology of examination anxiety (of which there is a large body of scholarly work, not mentioned in this book) indicates that in fact moderate trait anxiety correlates with higher final examination performance, but we won’t let actual research into the psychological basis of examination anxiety into this review. It might distract from the focus on laughing.

From there we move into the frankly curious. “When you go to visit a doctor or lawyer do you ask for his mark sheet? No, you trust the doctor or lawyer.” (I paraphrase). Does the writer seriously think that the public goes to see doctors or lawyers based on zero criteria regarding qualifications? “Partial knowledge is more harmful than scoring low marks”. One wants to retort that partial knowledge is what scores low marks, but whatever.

The stranger

And then we come to the extraordinary sample timetable of an Exam Warrior. It is unclear whether this is a timetable for when an exam is looming or not, but unless one is going to be an Exam Warrior all through the year (and this is not clear from the book) one should suppose that the timetable is for exam times. The Warrior spends 7 hours sleeping, 1 hour watching TV, 1 hour Drawing, 1 hour 30 minutes on hobbies, 1 hour 15 minutes on playing and most strange of all, 1 hour on “Getting Ready”. Actual study time: 3 hours. There are not many exams in India that the average Janardan is going to get through with 3 hours of before-exam study (this is from personal experience of 24 years of taking exams, and watching compatriots).

Scattered throughout are all manner of bits and pieces of advice, encapsulated in the most odd manner. Exam Warriors are advised to revise using “Mind Maps”. These should be made using pen and paper (OK, got that, not on a Samsung Note) – but the paper should be oriented in Landscape mode (Why? I puzzled a little over why landscape mode, until it struck me that Indian palm leaf manuscripts are generally written in landscape mode, so that must be why). Then, in the little homily on the necessity of sleep, there is the flash of purple prose where “I” and “me” occur 15 times in 9 lines, when the author informs us that he sleeps a mere 4-6 hours per day – obviously essential knowledge for every Exam Warrior.

The strangest

Let there be no mistake, examination anxiety is a very real, and often crippling condition that affects a huge number of people – especially in a country where successfully clearing an exam can set oneself up for life in an increasingly precarious job market. But this cheerful little book is not the one that answers those anxieties.

Indeed, this book validates our entire rote-learning based educational system that potential exam-takers – school exams, college admission tests, public service exams – have to negotiate. The unspoken assumption is that everything else with the educational system is fine – the huge class sizes, the demotivated teachers, the footnote-learning, the almost universal neglect of physical and sporting activity, the absence of encouragement of critical thinking and independent thought. All that matters is the navigation of the exam fears and terrors of parents, children, relatives and even spouses – and how an oracle is at hand to magic them away.

Actually, the book never really offers anything more than the trite bromides handed out by self-help books. There has obviously been considerable help provided by the Blue Kraft Digital Foundation.

And then comes…

However, the Exam Warrior who has diligently read the first half, the first 100 pages of the book, is now in for something of a shock. Incredibly, the author is bored of the subject. The second half of the book (another 93 pages) wanders off into digressions which seem to have little relation to the subject of examinations. Chapter 21 is about Incredible India and the travel and exploration possible therein. Other chapters are about dreaming, thanking tailors and cooks and drivers and conductors (Do they have examinations, too? Who do they thank?) and nearly 50 pages of yogasanas to pad out the lack of coherent content.

Whom is this book aimed at? Who will benefit, and what will they learn? Well, apart from the odd name dropping of Vivekananda and Sachin Tendulkar, not much more than the routine exhortations to greater effort that they hear in their morning assemblies in school every day. There is no music, no literature, no schema for exploration of the unknown, no historical or social context of the need for educational assessment beyond summative exam assessment.

An Exam Warrior will not read the “out-of-syllabus” Mahabharata, or Rabindranath Tagore or even a Kalidasa or THuiruvalluvar for the sheer pleasure of reading. He will not want to read the Origin of Species in the original to relive the spirit of adventure. What is also fascinating is that the book is not available free of cost.

PS

Finally, in the process of preparing for exams, Exam Warriors need to forget that their bodies are composed of elements according to the Periodic Table – that reductionist nonsense peddled by Western thought polluters. “Our Scriptures have taught us that our bodies are composed of the ‘Panchamahabhoots’ – the five elements of Prithvi, Jal, Vayu, Akash and Agni.” The rest of the world has moved on from Anaximander and Galen. Our Exam Warriors, obviously, do not need to.

Exam Warriors, Narendra Modi, Penguin Books.

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