A hero comes along

If teachers need a morale boost in times like these, they should pick up Mrinal Kalita’s novel, whose Assamese original won the Bal Sahitya Puraskar.

Published : Jun 01, 2024 17:43 IST - 3 MINS READ

Children playing outside their school in Jorhat, Assam. Mrinal Kalita’s Under the Bakul Tree is powerful in depicting the world of young adults.

Children playing outside their school in Jorhat, Assam. Mrinal Kalita’s Under the Bakul Tree is powerful in depicting the world of young adults. | Photo Credit: DHIRAJ SINGH/UNICEF

Saattai (2012), a Tamil film starring Samuthirakani and directed by M. Anbazhagan, is the story of a teacher, Dayalan, defying the system of education in government schools to bring out his students’ potential. His vision is constantly challenged by unruly students, stubborn management, and the status quo.

Under the Bakul Tree
By Mrinal Kalita; translated by Partha Pratim Goswami
Penguin India
Pages: 328
Price: Rs.350

Under the Bakul Tree by Mrinal Kalita, who received the Sahitya Akademi’s Bal Sahitya Puraskar in 2021 for the Assamese original, Bakul Phular Dare, is a similar tale of a gifted but impoverished student, Ashim, and an idealistic maths teacher, Anubhav, who wants to change the education system. Anubhav takes Ashim under his wing when destitution forces him to drop out of school and break stones in a quarry.

Understanding of the ‘system’

A maths teacher himself, Mrinal Kalita probably has a fair knowledge of the workings of the “system”, which stymies anything remotely progressive or imaginative. “Is there anyone who really thinks about and feels the pain and plight of people like Ashim,” he asks. The conduct of politicians and political breadcrumbing are discussed too. Anubhav’s enthusiastic fellow teacher, Jilmil, says: “But successive governments misappropriate public funds and buy the votes by baiting people with one or two fish every now and then. Quite evidently, they don’t want people to start fishing.”

Also Read | Somnath Batabyal’s powerful take on Assam’s turbulent past falters in execution

While Saattai isa high-minded film, it tends to get too didactic. The headmaster is a copybook villain while the hero, Dayalan, is exceptionally virtuous. Under the Bakul Tree is certainly more nuanced, but it has similar pitfalls. For instance, in a particular moment at the beginning of the book, Anubhav gets into an “ideological conflict” with another teacher, necessitating a board meeting with the principal. A scene that could have been used to flesh out the complex forces that Anubhav is up against, becomes, disappointingly, a cinematic sequence, with Anubhav delivering a moving monologue that sparks immediate change in his fellow teachers’ mindset. The insistence on a social message makes the book simplistic in spite of Kalita’s impressive description of rural Assam, with its muddy roads, green hills, and cicadas.

Surface-level exploration

Even with its surface-level exploration of the education system, Saattai still manages to give us an idea of the social forces that Dayalan has to contend with. But Anubhav seems to have it too easy. A single monologue moves the teachers, a single lesson motivates the students, a library is magically put together with donations, and Ashim’s poverty is reversed in a trice. The absence of struggle seems unrealistic. If Anubhav’s fight had been recorded in true-to-life details, the book would have been provocative, not just picturesque.

That said, Under the Bakul Tree is a notable book because it reminds us of the role that teachers play in shaping society at a time when our education system has been considerably devalued, with curricula becoming vehicles of propaganda and universities being deprived of funds. If teachers need a morale boost, they should pick up this book, which, in its English translation, can now reach a larger number of readers.

Kalita is also powerful in his depiction of the world of young adults. Ashim’s interior monologues expertly paint him as a person who is being forced by circumstances to grow up when he still retains the naivete of childhood. His friendship with Nirmal, a school topper who always has his back, reinforces hope in kindness and comradeship as forces of change.

Srinidhi Madurai K. interned with Frontline between April and June 2024.

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