Explain with reference to the context

For the greater part of my schooling years, the pleasure I derived from English exams was marred by this one section. Given that English and French were the only exams I took any pleasure in, I felt pretty miffed about anything that took away even a part of this rare emotion. It is a bizarre section almost exclusively limited to the Matriculation Board, which is itself a Tamil Nadu-specific curiosity. This is how it worked (well, kinda, because I never did get these right) – they’d give you a couple of lines (could be prose or poetry) from your text book, which you had to, well, explain with reference to the context. You’d start with which lesson or poem the passage had been sourced from, who the author of the piece was, what happened till just before this line and what happens afterwards… Kinda like explaining Desperate Housewives or Chitthi to an annoying ignoramus who walks in, with no background information whatsoever, and asks, “So, what’s happening?” The clincher was the “inference”. You had to end your response with what could be inferred from those lines. This involved some creative thinking, as it was the only original contribution you made to the whole exercise. The rest was simply setting context and summarizing.

Explain with Reference to the Context, or as it was fondly called – the ERC, was my least favorite part of an English I exam. I didn’t have trouble figuring out which chapter / poem something was taken from. Unless you had never ever read the chapter, it was pretty easy to figure that out. And of course, giving a gist of the story till that line made its first appearance was alright too. It was always the “inference” bit that got me.

The exercise worked well if the teacher picked a significant line. Think along the lines of “Tomorrow’s another day”, said Scarlett, or “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”, so you could produce reams of material about the “significance” of that line. But not all English teachers were so kindly disposed. Some wanted to make the exercise challenging, and picked obscure lines that you really had to have a photographic memory to correctly place, other teachers, possibly as bored with the exercise as I was, just picked a random line. The consequences of the latter were always more dangerous than any that might result from a determination to “let’s make this difficult”.

Now, while an author may strongly dispute this, not all lines in a passage make sense, or have any significance attached to them. For instance, this entire blog is dedicated to insignificant prose. (Clearly, I am from a more magnanimous breed of authors, but you knew that.) I have suffered years of cruel and unusual punishment, having to come up with sparkling insights into lines that perhaps even the author had no idea why he or she wrote.

Once, and only once, did I snap. The line was from a chapter about Gandhi. I don’t remember the exact line or the book that the chapter was sourced from. All I remember is that it had something to do with Gandhi’s handwriting being quite illegible. I wracked my brains to see if I could spot some deep, hidden meaning. Perhaps through that line the author meant to question bourgeois ideals of what constitutes “good handwriting”, or an elegy, regretting a lost opportunity (Gandhi should have taken up that calligraphy course when it was offered at that introductory price!), or a protest against the language of the oppressor. I don’t know now, and I certainly didn’t know then. Perhaps, it was merely an interesting tidbit, mentioned to make the man sound more like a man, and less like God. But you can’t ever say that in an English exam, not in single one of the many schools I went to. “Oh, the author just put it in there, because he thought you might find it interesting. Just being chatty.” That goes against every last grain of a convent education.

As the clock ticked on, I grew desperate. As more minutes passed, I began to get angry. “How in the world is one supposed to make sense of a silly bunch of words like this line clearly is? What the devil does any of this have to do with learning English?” When I get angry, I ask myself such questions. Just to pass the time, really. God knows, I haven’t a clue about the answers, but then again, if I did have a clue, I wouldn’t be so angry in the first place, would I? Anyway, it all got increasingly convoluted. Finally, my mental bulb switched itself on, and I dashed off what I felt was the single most relevant inference a student could possibly draw from that line. Congratulating myself on my own intelligence, nay genius, I wrote, “Inference: If Gandhiji himself had bad handwriting, it is alright if we do, too.”

That little line put me on the map. It brought me notoriety. Until then, I was a quiet kid in class, almost the teacher’s pet, you could say (at least in English – let us not talk of Math). After this answer, I became the designated class-subversive. The one that the more innocent kids needed to be protected from. What if I put my powers of literary analysis to evil use, and went around whispering into guileless ears, “Psst, why do write so neatly? Gandhi’s writing sucked! Do you want to be the next father of the nation? Or do you want to be a nobody who writes his own neat goodbye note, as you fade into insignificance?” Or worse, told my fellow 4-line-copy-yoke-bearers, “Hear ye! Hear ye! I have news from the real world – lousy handwriting did not prevent a man from becoming famous or important! It is possible to live a life as a non-calligrapher!” Being only 11 or 12 at that time, I would have of course, expressed myself in simpler terms, but that did not make my possible intent any less wicked.

My rebellion, sadly, was not shocking enough to get the school to scrap the question category. Besides, the state level school board would have had to get involved, and a school-level notoriety only takes you so far. Perhaps, had I written “Because Gandhi’s writing was bad, he went on to become India’s greatest leader. All Indians who wish to become great leaders should start by writing badly”, there might have been a chance. But, there’s no point in entertaining these sad thoughts now. Hindsight, as they say, is perfect.

What did happen was that the teacher started paying extra attention to my ERC answers. It was torture I could not bear. Any chance of slipping the occasional too-smart remark under the radar was lost forever. I HAD to toe the line. I, too, began to write canned inanities that began with “By this the author wishes to convey that…”

And so died my short-lived status as the James Dean of English, 7A. Today is the 15th death anniversary. I wished to commemorate the occasion.

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3 comments so far

  1. prash on

    ah, brought back meories of my failed attempts to make any sens eof the way we were taught our first language.
    another horror for me was “precis” writing (or as we called it the im-precis writing).
    we had to shorten a god-awfully long paragraph into 100 words and yet not lose any meaning.
    they actually (sniff) made us draw a table of 10 X 10 with a pencil and write our words, one in each box – so they would know it didn’t exceed 100.
    of course i cheated and wrote a couple of small words into the same box and none was the wiser.
    including myself – but literally.

  2. DoZ on

    Wow. Schools in Tamil Nadu must have some sort of master blue print for killing the joy in learning. I did the EXACT same thing with my precis exercises, only I always got caught trying to sneak words in. We even had to do a bit of math – passages had to be shortened to exactly 1/3 the original size. We had to first count the words in the original passage, divide by 3 or 4 or whatever, draw columns and write out the shorter passage, one word at a time.

  3. Ganja Turtle on

    Tch tch…Characters like James Dean never die….like my father’s belief abt viruses…he used to say “When you take antibiotics, the viruses dont get killed…they run away and hide and in the lowermost compartment of the spine, where there is a crook where antibiotics done reach…they hide there till the antibiotics are broken down by the body and then ATTACK again….

    When faced with such ERC conundrums, I always put my ahem….creativity to use…after finding poem/book/author…the rest was magical…however such things were not appreciated by a stupid english teacher who insisted on scratching her armpit with a wooden scale and then slapping me around with it.Disgusting woman.

    Later whenever I felt challenged…as in say French, by an ununderstandable topic for letter writing I always broke down the tension by writing letters a la Calvin that gave me escapist highs…to Chelsea Clinton asking for a date…to Princess Diana with an offer of remarriage…maybe that explains why I didnt do too well at maths….theres no scope for creativity…remember SSAD? Wrote an essay in it and got a B+ baeby!–>


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