Mathangi Subramanian, Dear Mrs. Naidu

Today’s post features a children’s book not from the Carnegie shortlist (and not eligible, though it would have been had it been written during the prize’s earliest years). But (since I’ve been thinking so much about the prizing of children’s literature recently) it did win a recent South Asia Book Award and was shortlisted for the Hindu Young World-Goodbooks award (and I’ll be reviewing the winning book sometime this year).

Sarojini is twelveNaidu. She lives in a colony where the houses don’t have permanent roofs (an image I loved was that of a neighbour whose house was covered by the canvas billboard hoarding from a local politician’s election campaign–the councillor had promised development) and goes to a government school where some teachers maintain discipline by hitting their students while others speak of expanding hearts and minds. One of the latter sort has set Sarojini an assignment–to write a series of letters to someone she’d like to get to know. Sarojini picks Sarojini Naidu,  freedom fighter, child prodigy, and Sarojini’s namesake (she’s never heard the term before, but a local lawyer says Naidu’s hers). Obviously Mrs. Naidu is dead, which is a matter to be treated with some delicacy in the actual letters.

Sarojini also faces something of a crisis when her best friend Amir moves away. Amir’s brothers have got good jobs, and now the family can afford a small flat. More importantly, Amir himself is now a scholarship student at a reputable private school. Sarojini’s discovery of the Right to Education act seems like the solution to all of her problems–it may mean a way for Sarojini to join Amir’s new school, or it may at least provide her with a way of making her own school better.

It would be so easy for this to turn into a 1980s TV-esque educational story–for perfectly legitimate plot reasons the characters spend a lot of time explaining the RTE to one another. In the acknowledgements Subramanian (no relation) refers to her research into the book as “fieldwork”, and describes sitting in the corner of a school “for almost two years, watching and asking questions”, which gives the whole thing a rather dubious anthropological feel. What we get instead, fortunately, is something like gritty realism (as far as that’s possible in something this light in tone)–a story about activism, and coming up against structures built to uphold the status quo, and the tiring/frustrating/rewarding work of getting things done. Discovering that admissions to the free slots in the local private school are dependent on bribes, and learning from Amir that being a poor student among rich classmates is harder than she’d realised, Sarojini focuses her attentions on another aspect of the RTE: the one that requires that government schools have basic resources; potable water and toilets and playgrounds and decent compound walls.

A thing that gives me pause is that this realism also flags up some goals as too hard or inconvenient to work towards. Yes, Sarojini might have a bad time of it in Amir’s school, and yes, fixing the public schools so that everyone (or at least everyone in this part of Bangalore) can benefit from them is a better and more sustainable solution, creating quality, free, alternatives to the private schools rather than rattling at their gates and hoping to be let in. One of the things my Carnegie reading group discussed while reading Robin Talley’s Lies We Tell Ourselves (a book about a completely different sort of segregation in schools) was the fact that, in that book, Sarah does feel occasional resentment that the politics of their families have meant she and her friends have to suffer this sort of abuse. (Lucy Pearson discusses the book here, and notes that Sarah’s parents are presented as oddly unconcerned by the danger their children are in.) Dear Mrs. Naidu is a lighter book for younger readers, and doesn’t make explicit the violence, structural and individual, that Talley’s book tries to invoke at a visceral level; yet it’s clear from Amir’s account of his new school that things aren’t exactly great–he will not turn down the opportunity, but it is going to cost him.

And yet Sarojini’s decision not to go to Greenhill, to instead allow the school a lovely PR opportunity to present Ambedkar School with a playground, though a pragmatic decision, is one that works out very conveniently for Greenhill. I was reminded, a little, of a recent struggle to gain admission in a local school for a child whose parents are janitors. In the face of indignation on twitter (see some of the replies to the linked tweet) and requests to name and shame the school, those involved chose not to, as the aim was to help the girl in question rather than punish or antagonise the schools. And it may well be the case that a pragmatic approach will yield better results than my own kneejerk anger, and yet. Dear Mrs. Naidu knows that under unequal conditions, progress is made by allowing the powerful to save face/look good (Sarojini’s turning of her campaign into a human interest story is crucial to its success), knows that when the poor muster together resources and make things for themselves (in this case a rebuilt and freshly-painted compound wall) they do so at a far greater cost to themselves.

I realized that I wasn’t proud.
I was angry.
Really angry.
Why should Deepti’s Appa and all the other workers have to miss a whole day of wages for something the government should be doing for free?

This is one of the few times in the book where Sarojini displays actual, real, anger, and I wish there was more of it. If there’s one aspect of the book’s (for want of a better word, though I don’t think I mean it as a criticism) didacticism that grates, it’s this; that it doesn’t allow for negative feelings like bitterness and rage–even Sarojini’s anger can only be of the most productive sort.

I find myself wondering how, in a book centred around “Ambedkar School,” caste is never explicitly mentioned. There are certainly various forms of bigotry at play among these characters–throwaway references to Amir’s family being Muslims, the chorus of local aunties who warn Sarojini away from Deepti, whose parents work on a construction site. I don’t know if there are signifiers that I’m missing; if not it’s a strange omission.

2 Responses to “Mathangi Subramanian, Dear Mrs. Naidu

  1. Just finished reading it, after I got it based on your review. Agree, especially with the anger bit. And the giving up on some goals as unachievable. Thought of the kids at Deepalaya, especially post the community walk that I went on the other day; and the kids I used to teach at Udayan Care back in college- who all went to schools like DPS RKP and Tagore and Bluebells. And the fact that with most schools that I know of, including the one that Ma teaches in, getting donations is a far smaller hurdle than getting funds for and ensuring continued maintenance. Beginnings are wonderful, but keeping that momentum going is where the story gets harder, often.

    Also, I like the headmaster’s backstory and the contrast with Deepti saying, If I let the worry overwhelm me I’d never get anything done. But I’m side-eyeing the contrast between the lovely principal and her bribe-taking secretary a little bit, because how convenient that the buck stops there. Anyway, inarticulate burbling aside, book worth reading.

Trackbacks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>