How Diverse Books Relate to Us and Our Students

This post is for teachers who are curious about diverse, non-western cultures and want to incorporate them more into their classrooms. My hope from this is that we can discover new books from each other. This book is not only about Indian culture, but also ties in themes about how to treat people with respect. With the dividing tension in the United States, it is prevalent now, more than ever, to learn to appreciate others for their differences, understand people’s reasoning for their actions, and create a more open environment for discussion. School is about learning, but it is also about teaching students how to be comprehensive and inclusive citizens.

“The more you know about another person’s story, the less possible it is to see that person as your enemy,” – Parker Palmer, The Healing Heart of Democracy

Why is it that we oftentimes forget this integral part to human experience? We decide to let our differences separate us, rather than our likeliness to bring us together?

One way to connect with people of different identities, cultures, ethnicities, and races is through literature. This is why we read: to learn, to grow, to discover, to connect. We read novels, and sometimes children’s literature, to allow ourselves the opportunities to see situations from multiple perspectives and try to see ourselves in the struggles and happiness of the characters in them. I read to do this. I read the Indian novel, SamskaraA Rite for a Dead Man by U.R. Anantha Murthy (1978) to form a better understanding of a culture I do not know much about.

“Once you allow yourself to identify with the people in a story, then you might begin to see yourself in that story even if on the surface it’s far removed from your situation. This is what I try to tell my students: this is one great thing that literature can do – it can make us identify with situations and people far away” – Chinua Achebe

Throughout history, there has always been a competition to become bigger, better, and stronger. Examples of this can be seen during the colonization of America or Africa. Although these situations come with different background and issues, they both have a common theme: one group of people, sometimes blatantly, disregarding another culture as they “make things better” by forcefully integrating their lifestyle into the lives of others. These stories can be told through literature. Today, a prevalent aspect of literature critique is postcolonial criticism. It is essential to see events and issues from a multiplicity of perspectives. It is not appropriate to allow one group to write history according to their perspective and disregard the reality of others.

One of the most famous stories of colonization is about Christopher Columbus. There is even a children’s song that glorifies his travels, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Oftentimes, Columbus’ story is told incorrectly, and many of the harsh details are erased to make it more child-friendly. Little do people know that Columbus was in search for India, not America. India was known to have precious riches that the European countries sought to capitalize on. Since then, European countries (including Portugal, England, and France) have had a hand in India. We must erase these falsities from our classrooms.

During the time of colonial expansion, India already had religious influences in the form of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam; however, similar to other stories of colonization, much of the native culture was lost due to the assimilation of the colonizers beliefs.

Photo by Bailey Blair.

Samskara: A Rite for a Dead Man takes place in a small Indian village, Durvasapura, during the turn of the 1900’s. During this time, the British Trading Company colonized India, and it would be another 50 years before India declared itself free from colonizer’s rule in 1942. In Samskara: A Rite for a Dead Man, the village held tight to its Hindu roots and brahmin practices. However, the villagers’ lifestyle unraveled due to the death of Naranappa. Naranappa was a brahmin who broke many of the rules. From a western perspective, these hold no relevance; however, from the eyes of a culture that practices these traditions, Naranappa went against everything the brahmins held sacred.

“…Naranappa had contacts with a low caste… and he drank too… besides drinking, he ate animal flesh… Naranappa abandoned his lawful wife after tying the wedding-string around her neck… he comes to the river in full view of all the brahmins and takes the holy stone that we’ve worshipped for generations and throws it in the water and spits after it!”

Despite his unruly behavior, Naranappa remained a brahmin.

“‘even if he gave up brahminism, brahminism cannot leave Naranappa’”

His brahminhood gave him a position of leadership in the village. Because of this, his death rites had to be conducted in a traditional, brahmin way. Only a brahmin could dispose of Naranappa’s dead body, and no one in the village could eat until the rites were complete. Without guidance as to what to do, the village turned to the pristine, unwavering image of brahmin traditions: Praneshacharya. However, at times even the strongest held values cannot stand the weight and influence of the colonizer’s lifestyle. In a moment of weakness, everything the brahmins stood for was lost at the hands of Naranappa’s prostitute wife, Chandri.

“No one could escape falling for that woman Chandri.”

 “Touching full breasts he had never touched, Praneshacharya felt faint. As in a dream, he pressed them. As the strength in his legs was ebbing, Chandri sat the Acharya down, holding him close. The Acharya’s hunger, so far unconscious, suddenly raged, and he cried out like a child in distress, ‘Amma!’ Chandri leaned him against her breasts, took the plantains out of her lap, peeled them and fed them to him”

 Soon, without his values to guide him, Praneshacharya was thrust into the world of western ways.

“ ‘Come, let’s go there. I’m sure it’s a cock-fight.’ Praneshacharya’s heart missed a beat. Yet he walked with Putta, troubled by a sense of fate. Standing at a little distance away from the group, he looked on. The smell of cheap toddy made him gag a little. The people sat on their heels watching two roosters snapping at each other with knives tied to their legs, leaping at each other, flapping their wings. People squatted on their toes all around the fighting roosters, mouths gaping. Praneshacharya had never seen such sharp concentration, such sharp cruel looks. All their five vital breaths seemed to converge in the eyes of those squatting people. And then, the two roosters: a swirl of wings, four wings, four knives. Kokk, kokk, kokk, kokk. All around them, forty, fifty eyes. Red-combed roosters, flashing knives. The sun, flash, flash. Flicker. Glint. Spark as from Flintstone. Ah, what a skill. One of them struck, struck, and struck. Swooped and sat on top of the other. Praneshacharya was in a panic. He had abruptly dropped into a demonic world. He sat down, in utter fear: if in that nether-world where he decided to live with Chandri, if in that depth of darkness, in that cave, if the cruel engagement glinting in the eyes of these entranced creatures is just a part of that world, a brahmin like him will wilt.”

It became clear that he didn’t have the skills to line in this world of sharp and cruel feelings. One part of lust is tenderness, the other part a demonic will.”

 Slowly, the village unraveled to western ways of living and tradition became lost in the decaying stench of Naranappa’s dead body.

The tensions between traditional and new ways of living are evident throughout history. From Native Americans and American colonization to Africans and British colonization, many cultures have had some role in colonization. Lorenzo Quinn illustrates this tension in an underlying way in his sculpture “Tension.” The sculpture depicts two hands pulling on a fraying string, about to break in two. This is a representation of Praneshacharya. He is the string being pulled by his traditional, brahmin practices and the influential ways of Chandri and western culture. In the end, he is on his last, thin strand ready to break from the tension of two cultures pulling him in separate directions.

“Unless I shed brahminhood altogether I cannot stand aside, liberated from all this. If I shed it, I’ll fall into the tigerish world of cock-fights, I’ll burn like a worm. How shall I escape this state of neither-here-nor-there, this ghostliness?”

As Chinua Achebe explains, literature is a way to build bridges between one culture and another. Without literature, much of our navigation of the world would be incomplete and lost without a path to follow. Literature allows open minds to learn more about those whom may appear to be different, but in reality, have more in common than originally thought to have. However, take heed and do not fall trap to the tokenization of one novel or the danger of a single story.

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

How do we prevent this? Read. Read everything. Read about other cultures, customs, and traditions. Pick up a book and say, “hmm, I have never thought about this type of lifestyle before,” and let your mind wander. Then, show students the books so they can learn too. Another book that engages the reader in the topic of the effect colonizers have on the colonized are Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. To read more about Indian culture, read The Hero’s Walk by Anita Rau Badami. Finally, if one wishes to learn more about how actions can positively affect those around them, read The Healing Heart of Democracy by Parker Palmer. Although this book focuses on America’s democratic principles, the lessons are relevant to interactions with all humans.


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