Q1: The younger generation is gradually losing interest in literature. Being the Seniormost Professor in the English Department of Kurukshetra University, do you agree with this assessment?
Ans.: The expression ‘younger generation’ is quite a broad one, but one cannot fail to notice that the lure of well-paid jobs in areas like computers and management has weaned away the younger generation from the pursuit of academically oriented literary studies. The kind of students who used to join postgraduate courses in English literature, for example, have now shifted to other areas that promise lucrative jobs and bright careers. Besides, in a general sense, the space for literature in magazines and newspapers also has been visibly shrinking during the past two decades. Interest in literature cannot be separated from the cultural values of a society. We cannot expect it to remain at the same level, when cultural values are changing so fast and so drastically. There is also alteration in the quality of interest that is discernible now with regard to literature among the youth. It rarely borders upon passion. There are fewer people having a literary sensibility. In my first lecture in the new session once I asked students to tell me why they had joined the course. I expected some of them to speak of the passion for literature or reading books. The one who had been at the top of the merit list replied, “To become lecturers, Sir.” She had revealed the truth.
Q2: Do you think teaching style and method are to blame for this decline in interest? If this is not true, what in your view are the reasons?
Ans.: Interest in literature is not so much consciously taught as cultivated. The process of developing an interest in literature is similar to the way one’s cultural values are assimilated in the personality. That’s why the experiences of a person during the formative years of adolescence play a significant part in this process. The role of the teacher has also undergone a sea change now. Earlier children and teenagers learnt these things from their parents and teachers, but this role is now played instead by TV channels, ads, movies, and other similar media, which are essentially cultural in nature. Teaching style and method, thus, share only an insignificant part of the blame.
Q3: Does commercialisation of education also take some part of the blame? Some say the level of teachers earlier was better who would make the job of teaching literature interesting. Do you agree?
Ans.: One outcome of the commercialization of education as it is operative in India has been an imbalance between the selection of faculty and creation of infrastructure. There is an overemphasis on providing facilities, which are non-essential, and the essential need for capable teachers has been largely neglected. In the choice of teachers, who are to be ‘hired’, the logic of ‘minimum pay and maximum work’ has been the general policy. Unfortunately, this does not work, since quality inevitably suffers if you insist on making compromises necessitated by the desire to make immediate profits. This has disastrous consequences, and leads to a decline in the quality of the ‘service provided’. The earlier teachers are remembered today because they possessed not only a rich treasure of knowledge but also the ability to communicate in an interesting way. Their interest in literature, for instance, was imperceptibly passed on to the students, who fell in love with the subject. Once you begin to enjoy what you do, the task becomes a cakewalk. We developed a passion for literature, because their interest was somehow infectious.
Q4: In today’s fast-paced life when SMS language is becoming the lingua franca of the younger generation, what can be done to make the students take interest in literature?
Ans.: Personally I subscribe to the view that now there is perhaps greater need for literature and art, poetry and fiction and cinema of good quality. Literature has a way of re-inventing itself in keeping with the changes that occur as time passes. After the Second World War there were people who held the apocalyptic view anticipating the end of fiction or poetry. But they have been proved to be wrong. However this does not mean that one should be complacent about it. Definitely there are ways to ensure students’ enthusiastic involvement in literature. We must pay attention not only to the formal education, but also to the various ways in which informally a person is shaped by early impressions. Interest in literature has to be part of the process of inculcation of values, of what we describe as samskaras. Literature operates at a deep level, and its appeal is emotional, intellectual, and even spiritual. By the time a student reaches the stage of joining a college or university, his aptitude has already been moulded. Therefore what we can do at this stage is to ensure sustenance and congenial environment for growth of whatever sprouts and saplings of literary taste exist. Impetus can be provided. It is nothing short of tragic, if literary taste wanes or dries up for want of care and attention in our educational institutions. Unfortunately this is happening, and we must concentrate on this aspect. Teachers can be quite helpful, though some support from the system would be equally relevant.
Q5: Suggest other ways of improving things to save literature from getting confined to the confines of archives.
Ans.: Yes. There are technological means and resources which facilitate the acquisition, availability, and dispersal of literature. Access to these means is also easy and they are far more efficient and user-friendly than at any other time in the past. Means for popularizing literature are readily available now. Literature is thriving in blogs and e-books. A look at the statistics about literary books purchased through flipkart etc. would stand testimony to the fact that literature is not getting confined to archives. In fact, now the problem is to separate the grain from the chaff, the superior from the trash. In view of this, developing the taste for literature has inevitably become linked with cultivating a sense of discrimination, which is not based on whims and biases, but as far as possible, on objective criteria. How do we achieve this? Shall I suggest a simple approach? Let us consciously cultivate the questioning attitude. For instance, asking ‘why’ and addressing the questions to ourselves. That, in fact, is the way we actually think. Enthusiasm is helpful for a cause, but a sense of direction and streamlining are essential. So far as administrative and social measures are concerned, I am ill equipped to deal with them.