Reading Comprehension, and the Nutty Generalizations About India It Inspired (A Guest Post)

I was talking to a Ph.D. student I work with, Colleen Clemens, about her experience working as a grader for the AP English exam. She had been assigned to work on a question about an Indian author, Anita Desai (the passage was from Fasting, Feasting), and she was shocked at how the students tended to use the passage as an excuse to throw out a series of flagrant generalizations about India and Indian culture. Incidentally, Colleen went with a group of first-year students to India last December, so she's seen parts of the country herself. The following post, then, is a one-off essay by Colleen:

Recently, I served as a reader for the AP English exam. Imagine a room with 1500 college and high school teachers sitting on folding chairs (with no lumbar support) for eight hours a day, seven days straight, reading the almost one million essays written by nervous, twitchy high school students hoping to test out of their first-year college English course. In a stroke of luck and irony, I was assigned Question Two on this year’s exam, in which students were asked to read a passage from Anita Desai’s Fasting, Feasting and do a close reading to glean insight into Arun’s experience as “an exchange student.”

As an AP grader, I read the same question all week (over 1100 essays.) In order to make us efficient grading machines, we spent a morning calibrating our responses to the 0 to 9 grading scale—we could see right away that we had much to learn about India from these high school students. Though reading 1100 essays has dulled my memory, I still know that several times I had to stop and mutter to myself comments such as “Yes, there are trees in India” or “No, India is not all trees.” I admit, after traveling there in December, much of India made little sense to my western sensibilities—I am still not sure why I saw an elephant walking in Hyderabad traffic or how people can cross the street with such confidence in Delhi—and I am certainly not an expert on India. But I know that there are bound to be trees in a country of over a million square miles.

I haven’t read the Desai book, but looked it up after I got home. The passage on the exam comes right at the end of Desai’s novel:

[FROM Fasting, Feasting]It is Saturday. Arun cannot plead work. He stands despondent, and when Melanie comes to the door, dressed in her bathing suit with a big shirt drawn over her shoulders, and stares at him challengingly, he starts wildly to find excuses.

Mrs Patton will not hear them. No, she will not. Absolutely not. So she says, with her hands spread out and pressing against the air. ‘No, no, no. We’re all three of us going. Rod and Daddy have gone sailing on Lake Wyola and we’re not going to sit here waiting for them to come home—oh no.’

Arun must go back upstairs and collect his towel and swimming trunks. Then he follows Melanie to the driveway where Mrs Patton is waiting with baskets of equipment—oils and lotions, paperbacks and dark glasses, sandwiches and lemonade. With that new and animated prance galvanising her dwindled shanks, she leads the way through a gap in the bushes to one of the woodland paths.

Melanie and Arun follow silently. They try to find a way to walk that will no compel them to be side by side or in any way close together. But who is to follow whom? It is an awkward problem. Arun finally stops trying to lag behind her— she can lag even better—and goes ahead to catch up with Mrs Patton. He ought to help carry those baskets anyway. He takes one from her hands and she throws him a radiant, lipsticked smile. Then she swings away and goes confidently forwards.

‘Summertime,’ he hears her singing, ‘when the living is eeh-zee--’

They make their way along scuffed paths through layers of old soft pine needles. The woods are thrumming with cicadas: they shrill and shrill as if the sun is playing on their sinews, as if they were small harps suspended in the tress. A bird shrieks, hoarsely, flies on, shrieks elsewhere, further off—that ugly, jarring note that does not vary. But there are no birds to be seen, nor animals. It is as if they are in hiding, or have fled. Perhaps they have because the houses of Edge Hill do intrude and one can glimpse a bit of wall here or roof there, a washing line hung with sheets or a plastic gnome, finger to nose, enigmatically winking. Arun finds the hair on the back of his neck begin to prickle, as if in warning. He is sweating, and the palms of his hands are becoming puffy and damps. Why must people live in the vicinity of such benighted wilderness and become a part of it? The town may be small and have little to offer, but how passionately he prefers its post office, its shops, its dry-cleaning stores and picture framers to this creeping curtain of insidious green, these grasses stiffing with insidious life, and bushes with poisonous berries—so bright or else so pale. Nearly tripping upon a root, he stumbles and has to steady himself so as not to spill the contents of the basket. [Anita Desai, From Fasting, Feasting]

Arun “cannot plead work” and must go on a Saturday excursion with Melanie and Mrs. Patton. Clearly, there is tension in the family (i.e., Melanie has an eating disorder, and Arun knows it), but Arun goes into the “insidious” wild though he would prefer to be back in town. The passage—though only a few paragraphs—evidently was all the students needed to make grand claims about India such as the ones that follow:

Arun cannot possibly speak English. He is so incapable, Mrs. Patton must speak in simple sentences (yes, they conflated the narrator with the character) so Arun has any chance of understanding her. And when she sings “Summertime…when the living is eeh-zee,” Arun doesn’t know the word “easy” so he mishears her (this is an example of “epizeuxis,” a word not one person at the table had seen before—lots of students gave us what we would call the “tour of literary devices,” i.e., “on your left you will see alliteration, on your right you will see pathetic fallacy”). Because he cannot speak English, he doesn’t want to go on the trip. In fact, Indians like to work so much, he wants to work on Saturday (missing the subtlety that he “cannot plead work”) instead of going to the beach, an all-American day that he does not understand because he wants to work; one must remember that Indians are very studious. He wants badly to go into town; India is so crowded, Arun is afraid of having the space available to him by being outdoors. But at the same time, India is a jungle (we saw this word so many times, we actually started a pool at our table, chipping in a quarter and the next person to see it would win the pot) full of wild animals such as tigers. Arun feared being in the wilderness—he couldn’t see the birds, so he didn’t know what else was lurking in the wild. And why go outside when he can be in town where he can enjoy the air conditioning, something he would not have seen in India (many students added this air conditioning detail though the passage does not mention it) even though India is REALLY hot? One student exclaimed “He actually got sweaty!” In fact, Indians live in deserts and are afraid of “woodsy” areas. Inside Arun wouldn’t have to see birds—a scary sight since there are no birds in India. Since India is a primarily urban country, Arun would not know how to be in nature, especially when people in India don’t go on picnics. How could they go on picnics? The women would have to walk behind the men and they would trip over their veils! That is, the few women Arun would have ever seen since Indian men don’t see Indian women, women who don’t wear makeup and are more “natural” than American women. Instead of picnicking, the Indian people who are mostly Muslim spend their time worshipping cows, which Arun would certainly have wanted to do on Saturday instead of going to the beach.

I wish I were making up or exaggerating in this pastiche, but I am sad to report I am not (and I didn’t even mention the students who read Arun as a Native American on the Trail of Tears). Ultimately, many students did note his “uncomfort,” “cultural electrocution,” “discomfortableness,” and “awkwardidity,” but of concern is how angry they were with Arun for not “getting on board” and enjoying an all-American day at the beach. Of when Arun trips over a branch, one student boldly stated "Finally Arun trips, putting a cherry on top of the ice cream sundae that is his misery.” The tenor of many of the essays was that Arun should see how lucky he is to be in the United States and get over his fear of the wild. Most kids saw that he felt uncomfortable, but the general attitude was he was just a spoiled brat—as our question’s skit writers put it, Arun is a “privileged little Punjab”—who doesn’t see the glory of the west. Scariest of all were the students who read Arun as an animal himself, so out of the range of human experience they couldn’t even see that he was a boy.

Some astute students did notice he is silenced by the overbearing Mrs. Patton, that the tension between him and Melanie may have been cultural and gendered, that he feels out of place because he is an exchange student, not simply because he is an Indian out of his “comfort zone”--“a stranger in a strange land.” In the end, the question writers did the students a disservice by writing “Indian writer Anita Desai” in the prompt: this subtle othering of the writer opened the door for students to make wild and unfounded claims about India using Arun—and Desai—as their vehicle. Those students who noticed the difficulty of negotiating between cultures scored well on the question and may perhaps be exempt from their first-year composition course. The others will be sitting in my class next year, and I will do all I can to debunk their repository of generalizations about India and the rest of the world.

[Amardeep here again.]
Even if you haven't read the novel, what do you think of the passage above? What does it tell us about the relationship between Arun, Melanie, and Mrs. Patton, and what is the author doing with all of the strange imagery about the "benighted wilderness"?

And -- would this passage by the "Indian writer, Anita Desai" lead you to comment on whether there are trees in India, whether or not there are cities, electric power, English-speakers or automobiles there?