The norm, at least in education, is what has been axiomatically taught through schoolbooks all these years.
Does saffronisation mean going against norm? If everyone is trained to conform to the norm, where does that leave excellence?
“What does it mean to saffronise education, papa?”
Prakash gently looked up at his 10-year old daughter, Deepa, as she asked him the question. She was still scanning the newspaper, which made her question sound rather listless and rhetorical.
Prakash had encouraged Deepa to read the newspaper daily so that she could learn about current events, and perhaps, improve her English too. Now and then she would ask him a few questions, but as was his habit, Prakash would ignore them altogether if he did not feel like answering them, or just give a curt reply.
What does it mean to saffronise education? Prakash thought about this for some time, even as Deepa moved on to the sports section to read about football matches. He said the word ‘saffronise’ a few times in his mind as if repeating it would somehow define it better. Instead, as always, pondering on anything for long made it appear stranger to him. He shifted the emphasis: what does it mean to saffronise education? Where did the word even come from?
He remembered the day, many years back, when he had complained to Deepa’s schoolteacher about the use of Arabic numerals in her textbook. “I hope you realise,” he had said with some trepidation, “that these are not Arabic numerals, but Indian.” The teacher had smiled at him with a mixture of scorn and pity. “But some credit should go to the Arabs too,” she had said, “for it is because of them that the world knows about these numerals.”
The teacher had looked at Prakash just long enough to make him uncomfortable, and then, without changing her smile, she had turned her gaze towards Deepa. The unspoken words had hung in the air between them, supported by an unseen threat.
Even the memory of this meeting vexed him. “If they changed Arabic numerals to Indian numerals,” he thought to himself, “would that qualify as saffronising education?” Using examples was one way to define a word, and it was a fun way too, when you kept adding to the examples. “If they taught about Madhava and the school of astronomy and mathematics that he founded centuries earlier, would that qualify as saffronising education? If they taught about the Chola dynasty and their extensive influence over Southeast Asia, would that qualify as saffronising education? If they taught about Panini, and why he is considered the father of linguistics, would that qualify as saffronising education?”
The last question brought a smile to his face, for, working in a software company, he knew that programming languages had rules on syntax and grammar just the way languages had, and then, he thought about flowcharts and algorithms. “It’s funny,” he said to himself, his mood now more pleasant, “that ‘algorithm’ comes from a Latin translation of the work by an Arab mathematician on calculations with Hindu numerals.” The Arab mathematician himself had called them Hindu numerals, not Arabic numerals. He must have been, ironically, the first to saffronise mathematics, if not education.
Like a butterfly coming back to the same flower, his thoughts came back to the meeting again. Why had he felt uncomfortable when Deepa’s schoolteacher had uttered those words? Was it the threat to Deepa that he could clearly read in her eyes when she had looked at his daughter? The threat, yes, but that only explained the anger that had risen in him that day. He had felt, rather, insulted and ashamed, as if the teacher was chiding a student for asking such a silly question.
A simple question like that should not have galled the teacher so much unless she felt strongly about something in the question. “So that is what must have flipped her,” he thought, “the fact that someone was questioning what she felt was inviolable, accepted for decades, even centuries.” Suddenly, it all appeared to make some sense to him – the insulting tone, the veiled threat, and his own reaction then. The threat, he surmised, was a projection of the threat to her own livelihood as a teacher if people started questioning the norm. The insult, from her point of view, was justified, even necessary, because anyone questioning the norm was, by definition, not normal. The unspoken words that had hung in the air between them were the same unspoken words that defined saffronisation.
As he thought more about it, Prakash also realised that the teacher loved and pampered her students, including Deepa, because she considered all of them her intellectual progeny, a class of young and vibrant minds who could be moulded to hold high the sceptre of normality.
Deepa, he had to confess, spent way more time with her teacher than with him. The thought disconcerted him, not just because it sounded too odious to be true, but also because he found this going against what he considered loftily as pursuit of excellence. “If everyone is trained to conform to the norm,” he thought, “where does that leave excellence?”
“What is the norm?” Evidently, he realised, the norm, at least in education, is what has been axiomatically taught through schoolbooks all these years. Is saffronisation, then, anything that goes against the norm? Possibly, he thought, but he felt that he was somehow missing the nub. He stood up and peered absently outside the window, a cup of tea in his hand.
The winter chill persisted, but that did not prevent children in sweaters and mufflers from happily playing with each other in the park. On a seesaw, he saw two children fighting to use it because it worked well only when the two sides across the fulcrum had similar weights. He smiled at them, and his engineering mind went into an overdrive about shifting the fulcrum…
He spilled his tea as an idea hit him hard. If the norm is the fulcrum, the centre, then there should necessarily be two sides, one on each side of the centre. One, apparently, is the saffronised side. What is the other? What is the opposite of saffronisation?
Why, when the new government announced changes to the syllabus, did they use the made-up word, ‘de-saffronise’, instead of, say, ‘whitewash’? It sounded like they were deworming education. “If they added one more chapter on Khilji or Aurangzeb, would that be considered de-saffronisation?” In a grotesque way, he thought, remembering what Khilji or Aurangzeb was known to do, this would be an apt word.
Roshni, his wife, entered the room and instinctively saw the spilled tea. “Surya uncle next door has passed away,” she informed him, still looking at the tea stains. “It’s on our block WhatsApp group.” Prakash opened WhatsApp, and saw a string of RIPs, ostensibly as condolences to the departed soul. Considering the devout life that Surya uncle had led, he wrote an “Om Shanti” that was soon drowned out by more RIPs. Roshni looked at his message and said to him playfully, “so much sanskari you are, Prakash!”
With a sigh, he left to meet his neighbours even as the unspoken words hung in the air between them.