Well, you wanted English exams in India

Posted on Updated on

Comprehension passage question: How do the old and young consumers differ in buying goods? What I want to write: Older Indian consumers, true to their traditions, only buy materials when their predecessor has been broken beyond repair. They buy materials for their utility, not for their novelty. Younger consumers buy goods as much for the ‘shopping frenzy’ as for the possible use of the goods in question themselves. Guess what response that answer will get? A zero. Here’s what I’ve been instructed to write in my English exam, over and over, and why I “practice” English at all: People of old age who buy things do not waste them. They only buy what they need and not for show. Youngsters, however, buy because they think that new things will make them happy and often do not need what they buy.

Ladies, and gentlemen, let me present the GREAT CIRCUS that is CBSE Board Examinations of India!

Let me tell you what kind of words are a big no-no to be used in your ENGLISH LANGUAGE EXAM, just for example: ecstatic, cosmopolitan, counterpart, flippant, extensive, painstaking, blunder …It pains me to write these examples! In fact, I’ve been told not to write the word ‘gratitude’. “Stick to ‘feeling thankful’, Ruchika”, the teacher said. Now I googled some of these words and I am definitely not happy to tell you that many of these appear on the “tough words” list for eleven year olds. And we’re eighteen, months away from college. At this point, I should put my Word Power Made Easy under my bed, forget what equestrienne or plebian mean and stop watching tv shows that are in English. God forbid I learn a new word. My problems with this whole set up is that it DEMANDS for me to be regressive and if I should improve, it would actually go against me. (Let’s not go into how much I freak out about being limited.) It eventually boils down to this: the English exam, the one exam that can be filled with expression and promise becomes a dull scrap of a words fitted to a dry, calculated equation.

Sure, I’ve tried holding my tongue for the duration of the examination, but that’s when things get confusing. The question paper freely uses the words “wanton” and “callous”…. and then they tell me I can’t use the word ‘GRATITUDE’??!! Do tell me, CBSE, who pushed you down symbolic stairs that you fell and banged your figurative head. For those who have absolutely no context, I’ll give you the reason we put up with this nonsense. You see, in the great show of being objective and just, CBSE takes our answer sheets, bundles them up and then flies them off to some hush hush school, the senior teachers of which then mark our papers and hand us a few numbers that eventually become our marks to define everything. Teachers in my school openly say the CBSE result can NOT be predicted. Why? Because it simply is not about what you write, at least not after a point. Because if my paper flies out to a school in rural India in a region that didn’t even want to speak English in the first place and may or may not have protested the use of the “British coloniser’s tongue, you traitors to all that is Indian”, what we slang-call “government school” in short, my marks will depend on how much the person reading my answers understands of English. Or how much they like my handwriting. Or how many papers they have to mark that day. Or how their coffee is. And who’s going to challenge them? Who will ensure each answer sheet gets its due consideration. Well, as you can imagine, when Indian students prepare for board exams, especially those in the Arts and Humanities, their instructions for battle are something as follows: 1. Write 3 paragraphs for 5 markers. Nobody cares about the first or the last paragraph, it just has to be there. 2. Longer questions must occupy 2 sides of the answer sheet, shorter must not go beyond half a page. Eff the word limit. 3. If they ask about the disarmament treaties between the USA and the USSR, you start your answer at the bloody Cuban Missile Crisis and then describe the Cold War. 4. Put all math solutions in a BOX, failing which, the examiner might not find it, getting you a zero. 5. Draw a line after each answer. Secure 10% marks. 6. Unless absolutely impossible, draw! Tables, charts, star shaped bullet points, just draw. Finally: everybody knows I make loads of mistakes, I do, but the best part about my exam throes is when I find shamelessly too many grammatical mistakes in my English language question paper. I bring them back to my mother, concerned, am I getting cocky, to have her confirm there’s an error, and that I wasn’t out eating hay on the day they reinvented grammar.