A Bengali zamindar's education in the 1840's

Picture dated June 1896, glued to the handwritten manuscript
by Lalita Prasad Thakur, who would have been 17 at the time.

Among the many things I am trying to do at present is a revision of Bhaktivinoda Thakur’s memoir, written to his son Lalita Prasad Dutt in 1896. I have been promising to do this for a long time now and I finally had no way to escape. There is more work to do than I expected. Even though Shukavak’s translation and a revised edition are available, as I go through it I find that there is much left to be desired, not only stylistically, but often in matters of understanding the original text and properly translating it. 

I was inspired to post this portion of the autobiography because it is about the Thakur’s own education. Since education and child abuse are a part of my current reflections, and our modern sensibilities are a recent development, not a wrong one mind you, but a part of developments that have only taken place during my own lifetime.


One thing to remember is that Kedarnath Dutt was born in one of the richest families in Bengal and yet this is the educational system to which he was subjected. The concluding portion about his younger brother is particularly interesting.

Note also that [as far as I know] Sorkar is usually a low caste surname, which shows the rather low social status of a primary school teacher, even when the students are from such a high class kayastha zamindari family. Certainly not a brahmin, and that also indicates the different kind of education that would be given to the land-owner class. [According to Risley's classification (1935) Sorkar could be kayastha as well as scheduled caste or other caste, so little can be concluded from the surname alone.]


[Bracketed numbers indicate the page number from the handwritten manuscript.]




I cannot remember very much up to three or four years of age, so whatever I wrote above is what I heard from others. I only have some recollection of going to a school run by Karttik Sorkar when I was three years old. I can still remember him showing me the cane. The school was situated on a long veranda in my maternal grandfather's puja building. Many of the village boys used to attend it. My cousin [maternal uncle's son] Mahesh Babu, Kailasa Dutt, a brother-in-law [wife's brother] of my maternal grandfather, Mahendra Bosu, Shyamlal Mitra, etc., also used to attend. Karttik Sorkar had a very forbidding nature and we were all very afraid of him.

When I was five years old, according to custom, I was sent to school. By then my first teacher, Karttik Sorkar, was no longer around. [It is unclear whether the school was still in the zamindari mansion, but from what follows, it would appear that it was and the teacher given quarters somewhere in the same buildings.] Jadu Sorkar and others successively took charge of our education. My younger brother Haridas was also enrolled at the school a little later on. We had to attend school both in the morning and afternoon. The teacher would come very early each day. Many children from the neighborhood would also come to study there along with us.

[12] Those students who were a little older used to act as the teacher’s agents and would torment the younger ones. If we were late coming to school these older boys would come to drag us to class. The rule was that whoever came to school first got hit [on the hand] once with the cane, whoever came next got hit twice, the third arrival got hit three times, and the number kept increasing in this way.
The teacher used to hit the head boy with the cane, and then he would in turn hit the rest of us. If for any reason you were absent from school you would have to spit on leaving. [I don’t understand this. If anyone knowledgeable in Bengali would like to help explain it, I would appreciate it. কোন কার্য্যের জন্য অনুপস্থিত থাকিতে হইলে থুথু ফেলিয়া যাইতে হইত.]

This was our routine at the school: The youngest students used to write their abc's on a tal leaf with ink made from coal. After a year they would write their sums on a banana leaf and then copy it onto paper. When they were fully trained, the students were taught how to do accounts for the zamindari office.

From time to time under the teacher’s watchful eye the older boys would learn how to judge a court case. If the younger boys made any complaint, witnesses would be heard and evidence taken, and all this would be deliberated on as if in court. [13] In the end a sentence would be handed down. All decisions of the court had to be approved by the teacher. There were many different kinds of punishment such as twisting of the ears, slapping, caning, naru gopal [I could not find details of the nature of this punishment, other than that it was used in the olden days. It would probably mean a kneel-down position. a common punishment.] or paying a fine.

We thought of our teacher as the very personification of Yamaraj and the older students as Yama's agents. Sometimes these older students would prepare a court case on their own initiative and sometimes they would do so on behalf of the teacher. Sometimes they would have a boy lodge a false complaint against another and then mete out punishments on the basis of false witness. Therefore, as we could see no way of escaping our predicament, we made every effort to keep the older boys pacified.

One time, when school holidays were about to begin, the head boy said to me, "Look Kedar, Guru Mahashay has no vegetables for tomorrow morning, so bring whatever you can find from your house." So, the next day, I stole a small echor [unripe jackfruit] by hiding it under my school books, and then gave it to the head boy for the teacher. My teacher [was very pleased] and gave a blessing, "This little boy will amass great learning!" The jackfruit was from our own tree, and [when] our servant woman [found out about the theft] she came fuming to the teacher's house and took it back after chastising him.

[14] When my teacher heard that my mother was extremely angry about this event, he became frightened. He told me that I should only take things that would not be noticed. "Don't bring anything big!" he said.

The neighbors' children also used to steal tobacco for him, but that was impossible for me [U1], since the servants kept my father's tobacco under lock and key in his reception room. I used to steal soaked chickpeas and give them to him [instead].

My brother Haridas became very angry with this teacher. He could not tolerate the tyrannical behavior of the older boys, so one day he took a machete and went into our teacher's room after he had eaten and was taking rest. I just happened to walk by at that moment so Haridas threw the machete down and ran away. Our teacher woke up and when he heard what had happened he immediately handed in his resignation and left for his own home the very same day. For that reason, another person replaced him as our teacher. In this fashion I studied under two or three teachers until I eventually began writing on paper.

Our daily routine was as follows: we would begin in the morning [14] by standing and loudly reciting the multiplication tables, addition tables, gaṇḍa tables, cowrie tables [i.e., the values of different coins and denominations, which were not based on the decimal system] and sonā kaṣā, the weight units for valuable metals. The older students would recite and we would repeat like a chorus. First the older students would say, "Four cowries make one gaṇḍa." Then we in the younger students' group would immediately repeat after them, "Four cowries make one gaṇḍa." When the oral recitation was finished we would sit down and write it all out. While we were writing, our teacher would intermittently declare, "Repeat aloud while writing." And so we would repeat in a loud voice whatever it was we had to write down. In the [resulting] tumult none of us could understand what anyone else was saying.

At around nine o'clock it would be time for breakfast. We would quickly go inside [the house] and have a simple meal of rice cooked on a cowdung fire and then return to class within half an hour and again begin our lessons. School would close just before noon, but in the late afternoon, at around 4.30, we would return again for class. When evening came, we would again recite the tables aloud and school would be finished for the day.

Up to the end of my sixth year, whatever instruction I received was in that school, and all that learning was in Bengali. I used to write out accounts, receipts and expenditures. I would copy out Sebaka Śrī [formulaic business and personal letters], but my handwriting was still poor.

[U1]This portion of the sentence is in the original but not in the printed edition.



Another indicator of the relatively low status of the teacher was that the maidservant could go into his room and chastise him. His ethical dubiousness also makes him something of a low class figure.

The overall system seems furthermore to have been quite primitive, and I don't think that Bhaktivinoda Thakur, looking back on it just after retiring from a career as a judicial magistrate and the many changes that had taken place in the more than fifty years since these events, would have been looking back with a positive nostalgia.

Moreover, the fact that Haridas was ready to do some serious physical harm to the teacher ("Guru Mahashay") indicates that even then, even in that particular social and cultural climate, even a child could be tested to the limit by such kinds of teacher tyranny.

But just look what little Kedarnath was already doing at the age of six, getting a very interesting zamindari education: Keeping the office books, learning how the courts work, replete with cheating lawyers, false witnesses and corrupt judges. To be a zamindar, one must be initiated in the heartlessness of the dog-eat-dog world where anyone with a little power abuses it. Not so different from the British public school system of the time, really.

And only alternative seems to be the no-win option of chopping the head tyrant's head off. You first have to learn to play the power game and understand the unforgiving nature of the world. Letters and times-tables are necessary, but they are just ancillary tools for the main game, which is power.


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