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LESSONS IN FINE PRINT

The success of school textbooks depends on three factors: language, style and subject-matter. There are other factors like price, publicity and trade terms for booksellers, but these don’t much affect NCERT texts, which have a virtual monopoly in most English-medium schools affiliated to the Central board of secondary education. Now that the two social science texts, India and the World (Class VI) and Contemporary India (Class IX), and the history text for Class XI have appeared, amidst all the controversy the history sections have generated, let us look at them from a publisher’s perspective.

Language, at least for schools, means grammatical English (or regional languages) with simple verbs, no compound sentences, nouns of one or two syllables and no dependent clauses. Complicate the language any further or use a metaphor, and you will have students — even teachers — scurrying for “made-easies”.

Style is difficult to define but is closely related to a language which makes for an interesting read and is comprehensive to the average student, for whom it is meant. The key word is “average” — publishers don’t make books for good students who can make their own way. Stretched a little, style also means packaging of the printed matter: illustrations, easy-to-read type-size and generous margins (this is especially important in textbooks because students use them for supplementary notes).

It is on the first two counts — language and style — that the NCERT books can be faulted. The language is not sufficiently simple for the average student in English-medium schools, where linguistic standards may vary considerably from school to school. It is, of course, difficult to strike a mean but there are certain criteria — range of vocabulary, frequency of usage — that have been spelt out in numerous teach-English-as-a-foreign-language texts.

Even a cursory glance at any of these would have told the authors that words/phrases like “ferocious” animals, “domesticate”, “social clas-ses”, “eminent”, “symbolize power” are beyond the average Class VI student, even of top drawer English-medium schools. Besides, there are grammatical errors, especially in the use of articles and prepositions.

Why have these errors crept in' These are multi-author books — a team of four with an editor, whose function is to coordinate the assignments allotted to each author. In a professional publishing house, an editor is responsible for reshaping, revising and rewriting, something that was quite obviously not done here in the haste to bring out the books before the new session begins. Most Indian authors don’t take too gladly to revisions of language and style, but this is no excuse.

Apart from stylistic clumsiness, there is an ideological slant apparent to anyone reading between the lines. Two examples. Marxist historians Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib, Bipan Chandra and Satish Chandra have been mentioned by name, as “allergic to religion and spirituality and their irreverence for saints and sages”. Second, cow slaughter has been condemned because it says so in the Atharva Veda — a point hotly disputed by historians. Will it be any wonder then if good students supplement NCERT texts with books of their own choosing'

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