Illustration: Akila Weerasinghe / Himal Southasian
Illustration: Akila Weerasinghe / Himal Southasian

The ‘note’ economy

A brief history of English-literature exams in contemporary India.

Sumana Roy is the author of How I became a Tree, a work of nonfiction, Missing: A Novel, Out of Syllabus: Poems and My Mother’s Lover and Other Stories, a collection of short stories.

"How many corpses have you disposed of today?" one professor asks another.
The quieter one is confused, as he often is. The words are in Bangla, where their violence is shocking. "Aaj kawta laash phelli?"
The questioner, content with having established his wit, explains, "Arrey, how many answer scripts have you evaluated today? What else is one to call these answer scripts?"
Such conversations about the answer script are not uncommon.
The English Literature answer script in India's provincial colleges and universities is a unique specimen. Its physical characteristics, for those unfamiliar with it, are worth noting. What sets it apart from answer scripts in other disciplines (with the exception of literatures in other languages, with which it shares this trait) is its body weight. It is an accepted fact that the Eng Lit answer script is obese – but this is not a weakness. On the contrary, as with the Sumo wrestler, its pride lies in its intimidating weight.
Among its other physical features is the twine that keeps its many 'sheets' together: usually between six to eight inches long – by my eyeball measure – it fails to perform its job efficiently. It has been found that the examinee is often distrustful of the twine, and therefore chooses to staple the sheets of paper together. This fear of dismemberment – while it might reassure the examinee that their valuable writing will not be lost – causes 'unnecessary trouble' to the examiner. Pages cannot be turned easily, reading speed decreases, and there is a concomitant increase in irritation levels that affects the examiner and their family.
Another common feature is the startlingly low average of the number of lines per page – observers (in this case the examiners) report that there have been as little as four lines to a page. This has compelled examiners, rushed by the Controller of Examinations to evaluate 200 answer scripts in two weeks, to change their evaluation policy. No longer can the worth of an examination answer be judged by the number of pages spent on answering it. Examiners are being forced, therefore, to read the answers – something that they have tried to avoid to protect themselves, their knowledge of spelling and literary history.
I have been both – examinee and examiner.
Paradise found
It is a little too far away in time. All I remember now – I was 18 and had just started college – is a sense of confusion about the word. 'Note.' Every student was on the hunt for one. When they found it, from a 'senior' or a tuition teacher or some source they chose to hide, there was relief, and, following it, a life of confidence. 'Note', I soon discovered, was an English word made Bangla – it meant the essay, or in more utilitarian language, the answer to an examination question. The axis of the education system in most of Southasia is rote learning; the 'note' was its product.
The note had to be learnt and then suitably thrown up in the examination hall – the phrase 'thrown up' is not mine, I am merely translating what generations of parents and teachers have told students. There was something else about the life of the 'note' that I noticed – its value depended on the initials that attended it: 'SC's note', 'SM's note', 'SP's note', and so on. The prefixes were those of teachers who gave private tuitions – the production of 'notes' came from that parallel education system.

In a viva voce examination, a teacher asks, "Who wrote Paradise Lost?"  "Ramji Lal," comes the student's answer.

In the hierarchy of values that attached to these notes, those from private tutors weren't however as precious as those that came from 'star students', those who had 'topped' their BA and MA examinations. These notes were elusive, more spoken about than seen. The reason behind this was simple: the possessor of this note too would be blessed with the same fate as the person who had authored it, they too would be a 'topper'.
Not everyone, though, wanted to be a topper. There were many who were happy to just get an Honours degree – it might get them a teaching job in a school, and that would have been enough. Many were 'first generation learners', a phrase that was used kindly by teachers, who seemed to be agnostic about the class elitism of such an expression. In the end, however, first-generation learners or otherwise, all of us were what one of our professors called us: 'Marks-ists'.
The quest for the perfect 'note' reversed the normal chronology of learning. The note would not be made from acquiring books, reading them, then writing examinations to get a degree. It began at the end as it were, from examinations, then working backwards. 'Previous Years' Questions' was the phrase used – grammar was useless, and therefore abandoned, so urgent was the need. By the time I joined college, the photocopier had emerged as a critical ally to student life. Everything could be 'xeroxed'. Photocopies of 'Previous Years' Questions' were an inheritance passed on by the students' unions, new question papers adding themselves to the old set every summer, when exams were held.
The question papers were segregated on the basis of 'odd' and 'even' year. If one was taking the exam in 2020, for instance, only the even-numbered years counted. Questions were repeated in alternate years – this refrain turned into a guiding principle for studying and preparing for the exams. It was on the basis of this logic that one decided that 'the invocation in Paradise Lost Book I' was more 'important' than 'an analysis of Satan's speeches' in a particular year.
What kind of reading was one to call it, this way of synecdochal reading where one knew only parts of the text but not the whole, where a sense of the text was experienced through excerpts? This meant that students experienced the text in two ways: as quotation, the parts one was forced to learn to answer expected questions, and as paraphrase, through the 'note'.

There was no space for the student's opinion on the subject – what was discouraged, perhaps unconsciously, was the examinee's articulation of judgment or even a personal response to the text.

Though this might be hard to imagine, most students using the notes had no direct encounter with the text. Most of them could not afford to buy copies of all the books on the syllabus. The college and university libraries barely had a few copies of each book. And so the attention shifted from the text to commentary; this wasn't very different from learning to play cricket by listening to radio commentary. In the tiny shops around the college and university campuses, from which no one ever bought anything, were books by those whose names were not on our syllabus. Our professors never mentioned them. We gradually came to understand them as the equivalent of bootleggers in the 'note' economy. Their names were not to be mentioned, not in front of teachers, and certainly not in our 'notes' or answer scripts. It was an underhand legitimisation of plagiarism, of borrowing without acknowledgement.
They belonged to a trinity whose presence and whose identity has never bothered postcolonial scholars. These subterranean worlds are difficult to fit into the universalism of theories. It is also possible that most scholars whose work gave a field like postcolonialism its body have been largely ignorant about this, because of where they have been educated. And yet Sen-Lal-Tilak had a kind of power that the 'real' authors in the syllabus didn't.
In a viva voce examination, a teacher asks, "Who wrote Paradise Lost?"
"Ramji Lal," comes the student's answer.
"And Arms and the Man?"
"Raghukul Tilak."
"Shakespeare Sen."
"S Sen."
S Sen, Ramji Lal, and Raghukul Tilak were the writers of student help-books. Their range was astounding – there was no text on the syllabus in Indian universities that had been left untouched by their expertise. And what exactly was their expertise? These three men – we presumed that S Sen, like Ramji Lal and Raghukul Tilak, was also male – had found the 'research gap'. The gap – more to do with demand and supply than the literary – was basic: there were no libraries or books of literary criticism available in the provinces, not even in many colleges in metropolitan India. These writers were like research assistants who had collated the writing of scholars on the subject and put them together. But it wasn't a version of the Norton anthology, of course, nor even like the 'Casebook' series, both of which worked on the principle of an anthology, a collection of excerpts from books and essays. Theirs was instead a book of prototype examination questions and answers. S Sen and Ramji Lal and Raghukul Tilak had only intended to be kind – to save students from the labour of reading the excerpts and putting their argument together. This was a readymade 'student's mix', like an assortment of nuts – in the 'answer' were scholars from different schools of thought, now placed together, living as quotations to buttress the examinee's show of scholarship. They were 'remixes' of a certain kind, and, like all bad remixes that replace the memory of the 'original', their ambition and character were easily forgotten.
A good examination answer, we were taught through the example that was illustrated to us in every 'answer', was this: an introductory paragraph, followed by quotes from various literary critics, these quotes mostly prefaced by the name of the critic with half a sentence or so, all of this leading to a dull summary in the concluding paragraph. There was no space for the student's opinion on the subject – what was discouraged, perhaps unconsciously, was the examinee's articulation of judgment or even a personal response to the text.
What was the ethic behind a model such as this one? That bothered no one, neither the examinee nor the 'paper setters'. But what the model did was to create and then indulge a habit of name dropping, the results of which would change the character of scholarship – and the research essay – in India. In the answer script, examiners would often find the names of critics highlighted; this was usually done by writing their names in green ink while the rest of the answer would be in blue. Sometimes the quote would be in green ink, too. It was, quite obviously, an attention-catching technique – that antic would solidify into the quotational architecture of lectures and research papers. There was only one aim – not the furthering of an argument, not the expression of thought and idea, but the exhibition of scholarship. The fascination with the quotation mark would turn into the show of numbers in the research paper – the greater the number of endnotes in an essay or book, the higher the pedigree of the scholar.
When my father, a banker with a degree in statistics, saw me try this a few months into my college life, he was shocked. "Doi er shaad ghol kheye metano," he said. It was a Bangla proverb: to make do with buttermilk when one didn't have yoghurt. It was an indictment of the methodology: instead of reading the essays and encountering the minds of literary critics directly, I was relying on a DJ-like figure to curate excerpts for me. "This doesn't work for numbers, in mathematics, and it can't work in literature," he said.
Like most people of 18, I did not pay his words much attention.
Xerox uncle
What weaned me away from the notes was neither my father's words nor any literary or ethical calling. I was bored. I had come to literature to be entertained, for pleasure – I was being shortchanged, for every time a quote would get me interested and I longed to read the rest of what the writer had to say, S Sen or Ramji Lal or Raghukul Tilak, whoever it was I happened to be reading, had moved on to someone else. I felt the exhaustion of eavesdropping – the voice trailing off just as I'd got interested. It left its impact though – I was led to the literary critics, only some of whom I found in the college and university library. I was surprised to discover that many of these books had never been issued to anyone. My library card number was the first on the list of 'accession numbers' in them. It was a minor thrill, before the real one, of reading these books.
I did not take them home. I took them to Xerox-Kaku – Xerox uncle – first. No one knew his name; his son's name was Joydeep. Joy – for that is what I called him – would listen to my instructions patiently: 3-14; 27-45; 108-162… There would be a thin strip of paper with these numbers, the pages that were to be photocopied. Like most students, I did not have the money to get the entire book 'xeroxed'. I now realise that it was all part of the same chain that had been set off by Sen-Lal-Tilak: the tendency to excerpt and quote and curate. I was doing the same, first at the photocopier's place, and then in the answer I was writing. I was only replacing the familiar critics with those whose books I'd had the chance to read. I have no idea why it made me feel superior to those who only read the Ramji Lals. It was perhaps not dissimilar from the snobbery of watching a Matisse on a museum wall instead of the pages in a Great Artists Collection Series. Like S Sen and Co, and like the photocopying machine, my friends and I were broadcasting the opinion of others. What were our thoughts on the subject? Did it matter to our examiners what we thought, or whether we thought at all? We were being prepared to become incarnations of what doctoral students call 'Literature Overview'.
Students raised on this aesthetic went on to become lecturers reporting the approaches of various scholars to a text, instead of bringing their own reading and life to it. The system, with the examination answer as its agent, rejected individual personality.
It was 2001. I was a lecturer in Darjeeling Government College. It was November, and the academic year was already mid-way. I was given leftover texts to teach, 'leftover' because all other texts had been 'allocated' to other professors. I was asked to teach Anglo-Saxon poetry, Robinson Crusoe, Robert Browning, and W B Yeats. These details would be unimportant if they were not a part of the same ethic of distribution and assimilation. Just as S Sen and Ramji Lal and Raghukul Tilak were experts on all the texts in the syllabus, lecturers – at least in the provinces – were expected to have the same kind of omnivorous fluency and interest. My interest in certain poets or modernist art and culture were dismissed as indulgences in a way 'hobbies' are by an ultra-adult world. They were expected to have no real connection with what I would teach. Also, like Sen-Lal-Tilak, who wrote about all texts in exactly the same manner, my approach to teaching all the texts assigned to me was expected to be similar.

The mistakes would make me laugh at first, and I would send them in text messages to friends, but soon I'd become protective.

The world was changing. The coming of the internet to India – a slow dial-up connection was available in far-flung places like Darjeeling – was preceded by another kind of shift in the production of the 'note'. S Sen and Ramji Lal and Raghukul Tilak were largely anonymous in their existence. There was even a joke, perhaps not unfounded, that the three were not real people at all but names created by an amateur corporation that employed people to 'write' these guidebooks. The faceless character of this philanthropy was changing by the time I started teaching. Ramji Lal's publisher was Rama Brothers, S Sen was published by Unique Publishers, and Raghukul Tilak by Surjeet Publications. Ramji, Rama, Raghukul – the rootedness in the Indic, the culture's first epic, was evident in the names. Unique, an Indian word for all purposes, given the number of sweet shops with that name – as Indian as Haldiram. Into this Ramrajya entered the ambition to 'become a name'. And into this self-sufficiency of the Indian ecosystem entered the desire to import a connection with the world – it was reflected in the name of the publisher itself: Atlantic Publishers, New Delhi.
The Ramrajya writers had made their business on the lack of availability of books and reading material before the internet and the opening up of the Indian economy. They had 'written' on canonical British and American texts. But now, suddenly in Indian universities, following the introduction of these tracks in American and British universities, were new 'special' papers: Postcolonial Literature, Indian Writing in English, Commonwealth Literature, and so on. For these, Indian academics rose to the task – they began writing essays, using the theoretical toolkit that had been newly imported into the curriculum. Only a name like 'Atlantic', with its transcontinental ambit, or 'Creative' would suit this ambition.
The ghost of Sen-Lal-Tilak, however, did not go away – the same quotational architecture was just replaced and displaced. Instead of Brooks-Kermode-Ricks, there was now Derrida-Foucault-Agamben and Said-Spivak-Bhabha. The 'answer' remained the piece of bricolage it always had been – things put together from the relationship between lack and necessity – and the answer-writer a bricoleur.
Found poems
And then I became an examiner.
It was, of course, better than being an examinee – even suffering from toothache is better than being an examinee – but it was a new world altogether. It is one thing for a young person to pack a year's learning into an answer script and quite another to find a hundred such answer scripts piled into giant brown paper packets. Though intimidated by the scale of what was awaiting me, I began reading the answer scripts as one reads a book. It was, of course, a mistake – no writer writes an essay for a journal or book in an hour. The examinee had to write four 'essay-type' and four 'short' paragraph-length answers in four hours. The marks for each question came in parenthesis: 20×4, and 5×4. No essay writer has ever had to face such marking, not even from the most stringent peer reviewers.

Reading these misspelled words by anonymous students from towns and villages in northern Bengal, I would come to know, slowly, very slowly, their lives and their unrecorded histories.

Though I wasn't completely unprepared for it, I was quickly bored – almost every student wrote the same answer. When the question was 'common' – the word for an expected question – the answer ran into pages. Forty answer scripts would have the same answer, in the same order. I soon realised that it was the 'unprepared' answers that were the most interesting. In them, as much in the handwriting, which I studied like a graphologist, I discovered and imagined the histories of these students. In the wrong – and often hilarious – answer was their history and the history of our failure, as teachers as it was of the rickety education system.
I realised that most of the learning had happened orally, from listening, and their answers were a case study of mishearing, but also of mispronunciation and the difficulties related to received pronunciation. The mistakes would make me laugh at first, and I would send them in text messages to friends, but soon I'd become protective. Anglo Saxon, for instance, was often 'Anglo Sexy' or 'Angel Sexy'; Beowulf 'Be a wolf'; Donne's poem 'The Good Morrow' 'The Good Marrow'. The special paper on Greek literature, which I evaluated only once, made me realise from where the expression 'it was Greek to me' might have originated. In answer after answer, I found the metamorphosis of the Oracle of Delphi to the 'Oracle of Delhi' – I nodded in agreement, I forgave the missing 'p'. Oedipus Rex was often 'Oedipus Sex', sometimes even 'Oedipus Ex'. Someone once wrote 'Dinosaurex' as the name of a character in a Greek tragedy.
The Greek philosophers were freshly baptised. Aristotle emerged as 'Arisbottle', Plato as 'Plate', both turning into kitchen gear; there was also 'Socks Rates'. 'Plate' did not want poets in his republic because poets were very poor; they didn't have enough 'plates'. The American writers fared no better. An American poet had written a 'useful' book called Leaves after Gas – in it was a line that explained why: 'I am large, I contain multitudes'. American Literature seemed like a slightly scatological thing. It wasn't Leaves after Gas alone, there was also a 'classic' called Farewell to Bums. That word appeared in relation to English Literature, too – there was a 'chocolate cream soldier' in Bums and the Man. There were the animals: 'Pig Male Lion', and a poet called 'Philip Barking'. But the central problem of the English Literature paper seemed to be about kitchenware: there was Sylvia Plate, William Saucer, Milton Flask (who'd written a 'novel' called Paradise Lost 'after paradise was lost'), and Lyrical Salads. William Lake had written two poems: "The Tiger" and "Charles Lamb".
"These are found poems. You just need to write them down," a friend told me. I didn't. So many of these curious mishearings have slipped through my memory now. I think of their life, their ignored short lives in the answer script, written just to please one person, the examiner. I cannot think of the answer script as anything except something that is needy, extremely needy, a metonymy for the person whose roll number it carried. What were all these misspelled words doing in these answer scripts?
Just as the quotations from well-known literary critics in books by S Sen and Ramji Lal and Raghukul Tilak made me long for the 'original', the longer piece of work from which it had been pulled out, these new words – with the energy that comes from mishearing and even ignorance – came to my eyes in quotation marks, as if they were in the same green ink used by students of my generation. For how could these new words not be quotes in themselves? Reading the canonical literary critics, I had come to know of the histories that had formed literary schools. Reading these misspelled words by anonymous students from towns and villages in northern Bengal, I would come to know, slowly, very slowly, their lives and their unrecorded histories, histories of their imagination and deprivation and inventiveness, and how they seep into a foreign language.
But in spite of this knowledge, this newly acquired knowledge, I would not be able to give them an extra mark for it.
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