Compared to most kids growing up in India, I must say that I had a relatively good school. We had a good looking building, a large playground, labs that were sparsely equipped but existed, a healthy dose of sports and cultural activities, and teachers that tried, for the most part. Given those basics, it feels churlish to criticize what we did not have. But of late, I have been forced to concede this little fact - some of my teachers sucked. Not all of them. Just some. And they were sufficiently bad that they killed any interest one could have developed in their subjects.
The worst treatments were meted out to history. Our history books spared no effort at making the subject as dry, uninteresting and unconnected to our reality as they possibly could. My teachers took it from there and completed the job. One teacher in particular stands out. Mr.I.U.Khan was the teacher who 'taught' us history for the longest stint. His modus operandi was to sit at the head of the class and read verbatim from the book. What he hoped to achieve through this was not entirely clear, as all of us had the same books. To make matters worse, he would chew paan while he did this.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, paan is a mouth freshening concoction chewed after meals - it is made of betel leaves wrapped around areca nuts, tobacco, candied dry fruits and fennel seeds. In its purer forms, chewing paan is an act of supreme cultural refinement in parts of India. It is an act that has a lot of ceremony around it, and is the central component of many a social occasion in northern India. In its unrefined and uncouth version, it is a messy, spit inducing mess that makes for unsightly viewing.
So getting back to Mr.I.U.Khan, he would chew paan as he listlessly read from the insipid book, occasionally dabbing at the corners of his mouth with a once-white handkerchief. This would lead to endless under-the-radar action on all our parts. Which was tremendously risky. Because the one time Mr.Khan showed genuine emotion was when he caught someone 'breaking discipline'. He would be livid and turn into the devil himself. There were whispered stories of a grown boy wetting his pants under one of Mr. Khan's fierce batteries. (Yes, my American friends, our teachers bought wholeheartedly into the 'spare the rod, spoil the child' school of upbringing).
Is it any surprise then, that I have grown up hating history? In all the years of my reading life, I have scrupulously avoided reading history books of any kind. Over the last few years though, I have started taking some tentative steps back in time. Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel was what started it all. There are some books that attain such an exalted status that ignoring them becomes pretty difficult. GGS is one such book. It made a tremendous impact on me, and for the first time, I started considering the stunningly novel possibility that maybe, just maybe, there could be something to this history thing.
I started this year with another great history book - India After Gandhi, by Ramchandra Guha. Right now, I am reading another history book, A Little History of the World by E.M. Gombrich. A fascinating 250-page run through of the history of human civilization, from pre-historic times to the early 20th century. Absolutely riveting stuff! In almost every page, I have an 'aaahh' moment, when some name, some vaguely understood historical incident falls into place. It is the kind of book that places the 'story' back in history.
With these books under my belt, I want to come right out and say it (maybe it would be therapeutic):
Mr. I.U.Khan, sir: All those years back, you killed and buried history for me. You were not a good teacher sir. No disrespect.