I am 51 years old. And I would like to continue to be a sex worker.” Imagine a book that begins with this kind of sentence being taught in classrooms, and children reading it at home (and their parents and grand­parents listening to it) as part of their painstaking preparations to become tomorrow’s ideal and well-off citizens.
Well, this is not a hypothetical situation. In all probability, it is an impending reality. For, Nalini Jameela’s autobiography, Oru Lymgika-thozhilaliyude Atmakadha (“The Autobiography of a Sex-Worker”) has been recommended for detailed study for the undergraduate courses in Malayalam language and literature, in Kerala University.
The recommendation may sound a crazy idea of a nonconformist professor. It is not. On the contrary, a ‘well thought-out proposal’ that has come from an expert committee appointed by the University to restructure curriculum in tune with the reforms in higher education, which according to historian Dr K N Panikkar, vice-chairman of Kerala State Higher Education Council, aim at “a complete departure from the past, improving the quality of education and giving students a space for freedom.” The meticulousness with which the syllabus is prepared is also evident in the titles prescribed for further reading, meant to enrich and widen the horizon of students’ understanding of the subject. One among them is Thaskaran Maniyanpillayude Atmakadha , (“The autobiography of Maniyanpillai, the Thief”). Both these books fall into the degree-level compulsory category of ‘biography, autobiography and memoirs.’
Panikkar is right. This is a perfect break with the past. For, so far students have been reading about great lives such as Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Karl Marx, Vivekananda, Tolstoy, Tagore, Dostoyevsky, Einstein, C V Raman, Faraday, Sri Narayan Guru and Kumaranasan. From now on, they will learn how customers behave with sex-workers and how houses are broken into.
Definitely, Nalini Jameela’s kind of writing opens up a previously unknown world of our society’s hapless victims and their sordid experiences. Such books have also brought in a trend in publishing with many of them becoming bestsellers. No doubt, they may be an eye-opener for society. All agreed. But, why impose such books on adolescent boys and girls?
The vision behind introducing students to the life and experience of personalities who have made a difference to human destiny is obvious. That education must impart a positive energy to the future generation. Also that the youngsters must know how an off-putting life situation, through consistent efforts and commitment to ethical standards of one’s own conscience, could be converted into glories in life. Will the biographies of sex workers and thieves inspire the future generation into new heights of achievement?
Perhaps another decision the degree-level curriculum committee has taken will help unravel the ongoing thought process on higher education in the state. The committee recommends lessening the literary and cultural content of the syllabi and giving more importance to technical aspects. The students need not study classical texts including Shakespeare and Kalidasa. And the Kerala History and Culture, which formerly was a paper, is reduced to a chapter. In effect, Nalini Jameela is in and Shakespeare is out.
So, imagine a generation of graduates who haven’t heard about Shakespeare but know everything about Nalini Jameela and Maniyanpillai. To the traditionalist, this may seem to undermine the very purpose of education.
But, listen to what KSHEC vice-chairman says about this inclusion and exclusion: the students should know the commonality within different studies. Indeed, the commonality between Shakespeare and Nalini Jameela!