What Do Poor Village Children Read?
By Yoginder Sikand
As a child, I was a voracious reader. I had almost no friends then, and so I spent most of my time after school reading. I was fortunate to have parents who encouraged me to read, who bought me more books than I could devour and who arranged for me to become a member of various libraries. Much that I've learnt in life has been because of what I've read. If I hadn't been addicted to reading, especially books other than those prescribed in the school curriculum, I don't suppose I would have been able to study in what are considered to be some of the 'best' educational institutions in India and abroad.
Now, I definitely don't mean to say that reading is the only or the best way to learn. Nor do I think that people who don't know how to read can't learn anything or know nothing at all. After all, some of the world's greatest sages have been completely illiterate. Still, given the present educational system, that places such overwhelming stress on bookish knowledge, the way your life unfolds certainly depends on, among other things, the quantum and quality of what you've read. Generally, the more a student reads, especially materials other than school textbooks, the better she does in school. And that, of course, plays a major role in what she makes of her life.
Middle-class city-based children often take reading for granted. Bookstores in cities are overflowing with books for children, and now even e-books and books that talk! Numerous publishing houses and NGOs produce books and magazines specially for children. Many middle-class localities have libraries with separate sections for children. Middle-class students in cities have no dearth of opportunities to read books on a wide range of subjects if they want to.
But a huge number of children in this country, from poor families and who live in remote villages, enjoy no such luxury. And so, they remain deprived of a major means of learning. That explains, in part, why many of them find it difficult to cope with school, why they drop out of school sooner rather than later, why they are generally unable to compete with urban, middle-class children, and why, therefore, they find it next to impossible to find well-paying jobs. As I've discovered working since less than a fortnight ago as a volunteer teacher in a school in a remote, poverty-stricken village in eastern Arunachal Pradesh, village children from poor backgrounds often read very little, if anything at all, other than their textbooks.
For the last few days, I've been interacting with the children I teach (grades eight to ten), with kids who study in other schools, as well as those who don't go to school at all, trying to gauge their reading habits. And what I've discovered is quite saddening.
Children here who don't go to school of course read nothing at all. But what of those who are enrolled in school? Their situation is only marginally different, generally speaking. Some such children read only their textbooks, while at school, and nothing at all after school hours. They'd rather play, or, for those who live in villages that have electricity and whose parents can afford a television set, watch their favourite television channels. At night, when students can get some time to read, often they cannot because many homes do not have electricity and in all the villages in the area the power supply is extremely erratic, with long hours of power failure. Many students have to spend much of the day after school hours helping their parents in the fields, fetching water from streams for their homes, gathering firewood from the forests or looking after their siblings. They simply find no time to for reading. The parents of many such children, being largely illiterate, fail to provide them the encouragement to read beyond textbooks, being unable to appreciate its importance or simply being negligent.
Most of the students who read anything after school hours have only their school textbooks to read. Overburdened with their homework, which is largely based on these textbooks, they find little or no time to read anything else. Tests in many schools are held every two months (and sometimes even more frequently), and this gives their students even less scope and time to read anything but their textbooks. But even their reading of their textbooks is often simply mechanical. Many students memorize entire sections of their textbooks without properly comprehending them. In some cases, teachers dictate answers to questions to their students, which the latter are expected to parrot at home and then repeat the next day in class and also in their examinations. Naturally, given all this, few students have time to read anything other than their textbooks when they return home from school.
It isn't that children who have only their textbooks to read while at home gain much from them. Most of the private and government schools in the area are ostensibly English-medium schools, and the textbooks they use for various subjects (other than Hindi) are in English. Most teachers, however, have very limited English, and so they often teach using Hindi or one of the many local languages. The standard of English of the students, therefore, is very low. Obviously, this severely limits what children can actually learn from or understand of their textbooks. Moreover, most of the textbooks have no bearing whatsoever on the lived realities of the children, their cultural ethos and their social and economic context, and this is an additional reason that many of them find such books dry and boring.
Relatively few students I've interacted with so far have ever read anything other than their textbooks, although many of them wish they could access such reading materials. Only some have read story books or books about culture, wildlife, history, geography, science and so on other than those used in the classroom as textbooks. Many of them haven't heard of the numerous children's magazines that are published in India and that many urban, middle-class children of their age read. Very few of the schools in the area get such magazines for their libraries. Many government schools have no library at all. Some private schools have libraries, but, generally, their collections are very small, often just a shelf or two or books, and maybe a couple of old magazines. They invest very little every year in expanding their collections and in procuring books that their students might find interesting and useful. It would seem that in some cases such libraries exist less to cater to the students' needs and interest than to enable the school management to continue getting recognition from the educational authorities because some sort of library is apparently a must for a school to be recognized. Some schools keep their library books under lock and key, and, for some strange reason, do not allow or encourage their students to read them. In some schools that have libraries, children are not allowed to borrow books. Instead, they must read the books during school hours, during the library period just once a week. But, of course, sitting half an hour in a cramped room with many other students is not quite the way for a child to enjoy reading a book.
Unlike in some other parts of India, there is not a single public or privately-run library in the area. Nor is there a proper bookshop. One small stall in a nearby settlement occasionally sells some comics and general knowledge books, but nothing much beyond that. The closest town that has a decent bookshop with books for children is located a six-hour journey away. In any case, not many families here can afford to buy many books other than textbooks for their children.
And so, as I've discovered, children in this part of the country, like in much of the rest of rural India, don't have quite the same opportunities as I had when I was a child to experience the many joys of reading. Beyond their boring textbooks, they hardly get to read anything at all.