Dialogue  April-June, 2011, Volume 12 No. 4

A Writer in the Role of a Teacher

Ramesh Chandra Shah*

Teaching is not everybody’s cup of tea; not only mediocres, but even otherwise brilliant or gifted persons may find the job too exacting and even exasperatingly dull and depressing. So, what is it that sustains those who find this profession not only engaging but rewarding as well in terms of a real sense of vocation and self-fulfilment?

Is’nt it a certain quality of ‘being’ rather than of ‘having’? It’s a universal law of spiritual progress – if not of worldly success too, Ż that  you can receive only what you can give; that your growth as a three-centred being depends on your readiness and skill to share your mental-emotional and physical resources with others. This is nowhere demonstrated and better exemplified than in the life you have to live as a teacher.

But, what about those, whose real attachment, real source of self fulfilment lies somewhere else; and who, nonetheless, have to accept a teacher’s job because that is the only work which can not only provide them with means of sustenance, but also the leisure and the freedom to enable them to serve their first love, – their so-called Muse – as well without jeopardising their conscience?

For, their’s is a divided allegiance: it is by no means easy for them to honour both commitments equally well. There is conflict too – infact, the demands these two different callings make upon you can often appear to be mutually irreconcilable. One recalls that remark in ‘The Old & the New Schoolmasters’ by Charles Lamb: “Boys are capital fellows in their own way; but they are very unwholesome company for adults,” This may sound a little bit cynical; but it is compellingly realistic – is’nt it? It reminds me of a letter one of my poet-friends had once written to me describing his own experience in words which are much more damning than the opinion voiced by Charles Lamb: “Teaching poetry is like cutting down the very tree which shelters you”. He wrote to me: “There can be nothing more anti-creative than this damned class-room business.”

When I look back into my boy-hood days – I confront two facts: the self image on the one hand that I had acquired very early was that of a poet; while, on the other hand, amongst all the different roles I found the people around me engaged in – businessmen, political leaders, advocates, bureaucrats, babus and teachers etc – the one role which most fascinated my boyish sensibility was that of the teacher. He seemed to me incomparably superior to all the others. There is a famous poem by Goldsmith called ‘The Village Schoolmaster’ – which presents the most devastating portrait of a teacher: “In argument all owned his wondrous skill/ For though completely vanquished he could argue still.” What could be more boring, more exasperating than such a character? How can any creative person allow himself to fall into such company? But, as Jane Austen has observed in her famous novel ‘Pride’ & Prejudice’, “there is nothing in  this world which can not be ridiculed”. So why teachers alone? – all professions, all human specimens have been made objects of ridicule in literature. That hardly amounts to objective assessment. Infact as Wordsworth says, every great writer aims at becoming a teacher – a teacher of mankind. And, not only Wardworth; even our national poet Maithilisaran Gupta has expressed a similar conviction in verse; poets, according to him must edify as well as entertain.

‘Kewal manoranjan na kavi ka karma hona chahiya

Usme uchit upadesh ka bhi marma hona chahiye’

    No doubt, there has always been room for what is called didactic poetry; but –that is not Guptaji’s concern here. After all, why does mankind need poets and novelists? What precisely is that need, that special function, which can be fulfilled by writers alone; and not by religionists, moralists, economists or social engineers? It is a quality of wisdom which is the resultant of the combined, unified harmonious functioning of all the three centres in man – emotional, intellectual and nervous-physical. It brings the whole of man into activity. And, it has to be read and interpreted on the some level on which it was conceived and executed. It is here that the ‘teacher’ comes in. His role as mediator is indispensable. Just as the poet’s sensuous-intellectual-emotional wisdom was transformed into a peculiar pattern of words – to enable him to become the teacher of mankind, - similarly the teacher-interpreter has now to grapple with the text to bring out the latent whole complex web of meanings.

That means teaching too is a kind of art: a secondary and supplementary art – no doubt; but indispensable in its own way of course. I could not have discoursed a poet like Jaishankar Prasad in my own way, if I had been compelled to read him for the sake of passing an examination. I remember many instances where a direct, unmediated relationship with poetry was vitiated through the compulsively second-hand routine procedures of class-room lectures and cribs. The quality called ‘imagination’ – knowledge by in-dwelling – is seldom at work inside the usual mills of learning. Teaching of poetry should emulate the kind of relationship between Sraddha & Manu or between Cleopatra and Antoni : “Age cannot wither nor custom stale / her infinite variety … .’… “Everyday they discussed new territories in each other” (‘nitya parichit ho rahe, phir bhi raha kuchh shesh’). What a pity, that most of our academics look askance at such self-renewing intimacies with literature!

As a teacher, I have always worked with the conviction that amongst all the academic disciplines, literature occupies the central place, because it touches the boundaries of all provinces of knowledge. Recently, this place has been usurped by more mundane subjects; and not only literature, but even language studies have been pushed to the periphery. This has had disastrous consequence for our individual as well as collective life. Literature is the best means of educating people emotionally as well as intellectually. Infact, emotional education is much more important for a human being than mental education for coping with day-to-day actual life-situations. It remains the only reliable and direct stimulant of sense and sensibility: that’s why it’s called the ‘light of passion’ – ‘Raag-dipta satya’, in the words of Agyeya. Waste of emotion and negative use of the faculty called imagination are widespread maladies; and proper literary education is the most effective safeguard against them. Literature is not our personal property; it is the most authentic and the strongest expression of the collective consciousness of a human community. One of the most important functions of universities is just this: not only preserving intact the cultural heritage of mankind but also to ensure its continuous availability and use through revaluation and fresh appraisals. It is here that the personality on the ‘being’ of a teacher can play a creative role in shaping the responses of the younger generations according to the best criteria of relevance as well as coherence. 

These has erupted a strange tendency now-a-days to include the latest literary texts in syllabus in the name of ‘progressivism’ as well as ‘modernism’. But I see no reason for teaching works which have not passed the test of time. A necessary conservatism and a necessary resistance are part of university life: The sensitive teacher is of course naturally open to new trends; but making them part of the syllabus is not the best way of encouraging students to assimilate them. Often vested interests and ideological propagandism are as much behind such self-righteous self-promotions, as spineless imitation of American fads.

I started my teaching career in a remote rural high school. Basically I was teaching science and maths; but, since I was also preparing for M.A. in literature as a private candidate, the school management – short of funds – was clever enough to assign English language classes also to me. Sheer exploitation; but I derived great benefit from this extra work-load. I discovered a unique opportunity, a unique challenge in this assignment. It was a much more delightful experience for me than teaching science and maths. I converted the prescribed poems into Hindi verse equivalents; and sometimes even sought the collaboration of my students in such transformations. It was amazing to witness the spontaneous, enthusiastic response on the part of my students. Through such a translation, they could befriend the ‘alien’ and domesticate it so easily.

Later I repeated this experiment at the level of undergraduate and post-graduate classes. It was not as exciting, as collaborative, and as spontaneous as the earlier experience I had had with young kids is but interesting and even rewarding enough with prose rather than poetry. This indicated a diminution in sensitivity to rhythm and imagery with the onset of adulthood and a corresponding growth in another direction – the direction of intellectual-analytical understanding. Translation gave them an immediate comparative insight into the expressive potentials of two different languages and also a better understanding of different cultural values accessible through their literature. Another thing that came to light was this: that whereas, with schoolboys, the participatory sense of adventure was shared by the whole class, here with college students, it was limited to only a few of them. I have very fond remembrances of producing the Hindi equivalents of two essays of Charles Lamb, which enabled the boys and girls to reach a much deeper appreciation of the ‘foreign’ essayist. The experiment also served to improve and intensify their understanding of the comparable essayists in their own language. It was a trans-cultural experience for them – richly contributing to their group of the centrality and universality of literature itself as the most central and most humane discipline.

Then there were those very interesting and edifying occasions for acquiring comparatist perspectives which were as new and exciting for the teacher as for the taught. For example, once, while discussing a certain scene in Shakespeare’s ‘Tempest’, - the scene, in which Prospero, after having conjured up wondrous spectacles through his magic, withdraws all his creations with a mere wave of his magic wand, and then consoles his bewildered son-in-law Ferdinand with words which at once reminded me of a verse from Gita – thus revealing in the process an unsuspected lesson of philosophy: the insight into Reality & Illusion: 

We are such stuff as dreams are made of

And our little life

Is rounded with a sleep

Now, let us listen to the celestial singer of Gita, who astonishingly confronts us with almost the same image, albeit making it sound philosophical as well as poetical. This is what he tells Arjuna:

Avyaktâdini Bhutâni, vyakta madhyâni Bhârata

Avyaktâ nidhanân yeva, tatra kâ paridevonâ

That is, only the so-called present is visible to us poor creatures: we have no idea where and how and what we were before; and where – how – what we are going to become the next moment. Everything about us is shrouded in mysterious darkness. Everything is Maya, or Illusion.

Not only Gita, not only Sanskrit, Prospero’s words roused another correspondence in my literary memory: this time, from Hindi. This is how Jayshankar Prasad, chooses to describe the ‘human condition’ in his epic ‘Kamayani’:

Jeevan tera kshudra ansha hai

Vyakta Neel ghanmâlâ mein

Saudâmini Sandhi sâ sundar

Kshan bhar rahâ ujâlâ mein

‘Kshan bhar raha ujala mein’, …. ‘And our little life is rounded with a sleep’. Are not the three worlds and the three voices – so far removed from each other in space and time – compellingly close to, and almost coinciding with each other? What happens to our culture conditioning – our actual cultural boundaries when we come to face the ‘final facts’? Doesn’t it demonstrate conclusively the fact, poetry can sometimes speak across cultures and thus acquiring a universal voice, make its unique contribution towards realisation of what Sri Aurobindo calls ‘the ideal of Human Unity’.

And it’s not just poetry which has this potential: fictional and other kinds of creative prose too can incarnate and enact a similar force and capability. Only he can be credited with the capacity of real ‘seeing’ who can become everybody, i.e. who can empathise with and embody all sorts of human types and states of being. Now, if you consider this in depth, you come to understand how great novelists and dramatists can produce such more than real-life impact upon you. It is precisely by dint of their personally acquired and superior knowledge by – indwelling, i.e. by their powers of empathy that they are enabled to reproduce the illusion of actual life – situations and actual characters which affect you like real-life events. The competent teacher of literature has to re-enact this capacity of literature experientially and not just through academically ‘correct’ procedures. Correctness after all is a rather tame ideal and there is a yawning gulf between mere correctness and real clarity of understanding. There in lies the challenge, before the real teacher. 


*   Professor Ramesh Chandra Shah, Padmashri, is an eminent scholar, thinker, creative writer and critic.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

                                               Astha Bharati