I first read this book way back in 1985 or 1986 at my school library because my English teacher Vidyasagar Sir spoke about it in class. I would literally devour books during those years as there were no distractions. No cellphones, no FB, Twitter and the rest of the social media :). I enjoyed the book and when we could buy books easily, I immediately got a copy of the book. I never read it again, but in Dec 2016, the writer E. R. Braithwaite passed away at the age of 104 and interestingly he passed away on Dec 12th, the day dad passed away in 2008.
I immediately wanted to read the book again to see how I react to it now. So I bought another copy on the Kindle but the entire year went by before I could pick it up and read. I completed re-reading it a week ago and courtesy the internet, I tried searching for more information about the author. I found some criticism and even found one of his ex-student who seemed to disagree with many claims in the book. Guess such is life !
Just to provide background to the already famous book –
The book was written in 1959. Mr. Braithwaite was an engineer from British Guaina, who comes to London just before WWII and he served in the RAF during WWII. Once he leaves the RAF he struggles to find a job because of his color. Finally he manages to join a school in the East End of London and the book is about how he manages to turn the senior class of students into well spoken and well mannered young men and women.
My re-reading of the book was very interesting because now I could understand the racism he faced, I could visualise the living conditions in the UK then, make sense of the social inequities and the many social prejudices. For instance, a girl in his class brings a stained sanitary napkin into the class and tries to burn it in the fireplace ! Well, he deals with that by getting angry with the class, and then by asking one of his lady colleagues to speak to the girl about how to behave “decently”. Even today the topic of menstruation is taboo in so many societies :(.
I also found a reference to Steinbeck about whom I hadn’t heard of till a couple of years back.
More than anything else, the book speaks volumes about racism. These few lines clearly bring out the racism that was prevalent then .. and still does – “My own experiences during the past two years invaded my thoughts, reminding me that these children were white’ hungry or filled, naked or clothed, they were white, and as far as I was concerned, that fact alone made the only difference between the haves and the have-nots.” Several studies have shown that even in this day and age, fair skinned people are considered smarter, they get paid better and fair skinned girls are considered prettier (especially in India). In the world of fashion, there are a few Naomi Campbells for the hundreds of “white” supermodels. Read this article from 2014 – Why black models are rarely in fashion. In a way nothing much has changed from the time Ricky Braithwaite was looking for a job in 1945 and now, but many things have also changed – Prince Harry’s fiancee is an African American and America had a black President for two terms !
Mr. Braithwaite was a good teacher and his adopted dad’s advise to him is spot on – “Teaching is like having a bank account. You can happily draw on it while it is well supplied with new funds, otherwise you’re in difficulties. ‘Every teacher should have a fund of ready information on which to draw; he should keep that fund supplied regularly by new experiences, new thoughts and discoveries, by reading and moving around among people from whom he can acquire such things.” I said adopted because he was living with this old couple whom he calls mom and dad.
The book is also about expanding perspectives and Krishnan and I experience that almost everyday as we interact with the underprivileged students who get scholarships through ShikshaDaan. The underprivileged students only lack access to resources, they are way smarter, more innovative and far more resilient than the “privileged” students who have access to all the resources. One of the things that Krishnan and I are passionate about is mentoring these students and its largely just expanding their perspectives. They do the rest.
I enjoyed re-reading the book and if you haven’t read it yet, do grab (or better still download) a copy and read it.
RIP Mr. Braithwaite. Thanks for the book… it will continue to be a bestseller and make many of us think about the societies we live in.
This blog is dedicated to Vidyasagar Sir with Love and respect for expanding my perspectives, being a great teacher and a role model.