Well-known writer Bama is also a school teacher. She taught school children from 1979 to 2015, when she retired. She says she is “fortunate enough to get education”, a privilege of upper caste men, and she is fortunate to have become a teacher despite being dalit. In an interview*, she recollects the ways in which inequalities persist in the education system.
We are familiar with Bama the writer, but tell us about Bama the teacher.
Teaching was my childhood dream. In my village, especially in our dalit surroundings, the only role models I had were my teachers in school. Beyond that I had no idea or opportunity to dream of some other career. As early as the time I was in the second standard, I wanted to become a teacher. That’s what my mother told me later. Once I became a teacher, I realised it is a challenging job, but I enjoyed it. Being with children and grown up girls and boys made me happy, and I always had a feeling of growing up with them. The constant interaction with young students and the responsibility of shaping and forming young minds and hearts, enabled me to refresh and renew myself continuously. The contacts I had as a teacher with the students and their parents helped me to know and understand the society empathetically but also critically. It made me realise my own responsibility to society.
Tell us about your teaching career.
I started my teaching career in 1979 and retired in 2015. During these 36 years, I taught in different schools and in different places.
In 1979 I taught in a nursery school in a semi-urban area. In 1980 I taught twelve-year-olds in a matriculation school in Chennai. From 1980 to 1985 I worked in a Girls’ High School in a village. These students were 15 and 16 years old.
In 1985 I resigned from my job to become a nun in a convent. In 1988 I became a nun, and again started teaching. This time I taught in an Anglo Indian girl’s high school in Chennai. The students were 15 and 16 years old and were from an elite class. In 1992 I was transferred to Jammu and I taught rich fifteen-year-olds. Midway, I left the convent and came home.
From 1992 to 1995 I taught in a village Higher Secondary school to students; and in 1995 I volunteered to work in a remote village primary school where most of the children were dalits. I worked there till I retired.
My subjects are English and Maths. When I was with students below the age of ten, I taught them all the subjects (Tamil, English, Maths, Science and Social science). When I worked in the high school and higher secondary schools I taught only English and Maths.
Literacy and education have historically been restricted to a small section of people. As a dalit woman, a teacher and a writer, what do you feel about being a vital part of the education process?
I think I am fortunate enough to get education and to become a teacher though I am dalit. But all along, I experienced discrimination because of my caste and gender. I was humiliated. That’s my lot sometimes even today. As a teacher I am happy that I had a lot of opportunities to instil hope and courage in many of my students, especially dalit students, besides teaching them academic subjects. To commit myself in forming young minds and to enable them to find their strengths, weaknesses, to celebrate their self identity and self worth was responsible work I was able to do joyfully for almost 35 years.
Who are your students? What socio-economic background do they belong to?
For the better part of my teaching career, I taught in village schools, and the students were mostly dalits. They were very poor with no social status and were exploited by different people in society. Being with them, I shared their hurts and pains and humiliations, and I have written short stories based on these experiences. While teaching non-dalit students, I often faced conflicts because they and their parents were not happy with my ideas of annihilating caste and class differences.
Are your students aware of your writing and activism?
My students knew that I am a writer and an activist. Sometimes I used to share my experiences with them and discuss current issues. As far as possible I would relate academic subjects with day-to-day life situations and issues. When my students went to high school and college, some of them read my books and shared their thoughts with me. Some met me and spoke about my work. Some have done research on my writing.
Dalit autobiographies illustrate how upper caste teachers discriminate against dalit students. They are made to sit separately, they are made to clean the class room and derogatory language is used against them. These accounts are from a few decades ago. Do you think educational spaces have grown more inclusive?
I do not agree that the stories of victimisation of dalit students are only narratives of the past. As a child I faced this kind of discrimination, and even now many a dalit student face them. They are forced to do all the menial jobs in school. They are ill-treated, segregated and wounded by unkind casteist words and deeds. Their self-respect and self-esteem are not taken into account and they face partiality and humiliation everywhere. This attitude is seen even in the primary level, and it continues to the higher level of education. The deaths of Rohit Vemula and Muthukrishnan are the brutal examples of this inhuman attitude in our educational institutions.
Though caste-based peer groups may be prevalent among children, children also easily cross caste boundaries by making friends outside their caste or sharing food? As a teacher what have you seen of casteism among students?
We know caste is decided by birth in our country. Caste feeling is instilled in children by their families when they are very young. Children are taught about caste and untouchability, and they are taught who to relate to and who to avoid. In many villages dalits and non-dalits live separately and don’t mingle with each other. Non-dalit students are told not to go to dalit students’ areas and if dalit students go to their non-dalit friend’s houses they are chased away by their elders. Non-dalit parents often tell their children that dalit children are thieves, ugly, dull-headed, impure, dark, and they use vulgar and abusive language. In spite of all this coaching, non-dalit students sometimes become friendly with dalit students, and they play together, study together, eat together, share their things… But when they grow up, their caste mentality surfaces. The education they get does not help them to behave as human beings with human values. Instead they live true to their caste, class, colour and sex differences. I have written several short stories based on real events and experiences.
How can children be taught about the caste system? And how can they be taught to annihilate caste?
In my teaching career I tried different methods to teach children about the caste system and the need to annihilate the caste system. I would tell them how babies are born without any caste tags, that all babies are in their mothers’ wombs for ten months and all babies are born in the same way. I would explain the poet Inquilab’s powerful consciousness-raising song “Manushangda” which says that all human beings are of equal stature and worth. I would sing it with them.There’s also a song by Bharathi about a cat. It says a cat gives birth to four kittens – one is white, one black, one grey and the last one has the colour of a snake. Whatever the colour, all are kittens. Similarly humans may vary, but all are equally human.
In these ways, I would use academic subjects to inculcate humanistic values in my students… Often I would use skits, songs and dances, and story-telling sessions to make them understand the values of equality and fraternity.
I personally feel that teachers can do wonders if they really commit themselves to shape the future generation. But it is a pity most of them perpetuate caste system, and instead of annihilating caste they annihilate dalit students by their words, attitudes, approach and inhuman behavior. Even dalit teachers do not involve themselves for the fear of revealing their identity and play a neutral role.
The educational system that we have, does not help us to grow as full human beings who are compassionate and rational-smart and good – at the same time. Everything is determined by money and caste. It is a competitive education which produces only money making machines and not sensitive human persons. It is self oriented, and does not care for fellow human beings. The more you go high in education the more you become rigid and insensitive. It does not care for an egalitarian society but it is self-glorifying. Instead of changing the society it justifies the existing unequal system without caring for social justice.