“What people were slow to observe was that the emancipation of the wife destroyed the parent’s authority over the children. The mother did not exemplify the obedience upon which she still tried to insist… In bringing the man down from his pedestal the wife and the mother deprived herself, in fact of the means of discipline.” These strange words do not belong in some moralistic novel from a few centuries ago, but from a comprehension passage in the English paper of the Class 10 board exam. The passage has since been withdrawn, with all students who were taking the exam given full marks for that section by default.
There were other passages in the same paper – on the same page was one which talked about how a wife who deferred to her husband would then be able to exert authority over others in a household (“Children and servants were taught in this way to know their place”), and one which bizarrely and ahistorically claimed that “In the twentieth century children became fewer and the feminist revolt was the result”. The section had eight questions in all, according to the leaked page. Perhaps there were more proclamations along this vein too.
The leaked page was brought to public attention through senior Opposition politicians, who condemned the misogynistic text and staged a Lok Sabha walkout to protest it. That the exam board acted swiftly and handled the issue without punishing students for their mistake is a good thing. At the same time, there remain some questions about how such a highly important text as a CBSE board exam could have been set in this manner at all, without internal checks and balances to keep it from happening.
Sometimes, people ask me how I come up with a new topic for this column every week. I tell them – “Something is always happening”. More often that not I mean: something upsetting is always happening. Something that wouldn’t have happened if incredibly basic rights, respect or common sense had been honoured or heeded. Sometimes, sadly, something that shouldn’t have happened. Sometimes, not sadly but not without distress, a thing like this: deep misogyny, garden variety really, on display by some twist or slip of bureaucratic processes, or some twist or slip of human behaviours.
“It’s nothing”, one can say, this particular “something”. No one suffered. All the students who were supposed to respond to those passages must have understood, through this public debacle, that those ideas and phrasings are objectionable.
But I wonder: is space now going to be held in classrooms and homes to talk about why they’re objectionable? Is this incident going to be properly utilised as a “teachable moment”, and if so, who leads these small-scale, sometimes quite private, conversations? What do they say across those desks and those dining tables, what cues do they take from contemporary society that influence their approach? Are they didactic, or do they hold space for slow but sincere learning, rage, confusion and more? That paper wasn’t set in a vacuum. It is not an anachronism. It reflects, unfortunately, thoughts that still prevail at large, shaping society, and all it comprises.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 16th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.