Tribal woman who teaches Sanskrit says qualification alone should matter

People may have long stopped speaking Sanskrit, but I don’t find a decline in interest in the subject, says Sarathi Hembram.

Sarathi Hembram lives in a rural pocket of West Bengal, where life is largely untouched by the acrimonious political arguments vitiating social media, but she is aware what’s going on in the Banaras Hindu University at the moment.

Thanks to TV, she has got to know about the protests there against the appointment of a Muslim as a Sanskrit teacher, and she is unable to understand what the fuss is all about. “As far as I understand, qualification is the deciding factor when it comes to appointing a teacher. Other than qualification, no other factor, including religion, should matter,” asserts Sarathi, who is 24.

Her opinion matters because Sarathi, who belongs to the Santhal tribe and speaks Santhali at home, chose to be a Sanskrit teacher herself. The daughter of a labourer who digs sand from the riverbed for a living, she was fortunate enough to go to school — Chandur High School in Arambagh in Hooghly district — and found herself fascinated with Sanskrit at the age of 12, when she was in Class 7.

“There was something about the way our Sanskrit teacher, Nivedita Ghorui, taught us the language — I would be spellbound. So when I reached Class 11, I decided to take Sanskrit, Philosophy and Geography as my subjects,” says Sarathi.

She subsequently went on to do a BA in Sanskrit from Netaji Mahavidyalaya in Arambagh, and then an MA in the subject from Rabindra Bharati in Kolkata. She was all set to do an MPhil on the Vedas when she got selected to teach at the Gour Mandal Sachin Mandal Mahavidyalaya in 24 Parganas (South). She joined the college on November 15 and, at 24, is the youngest full-time teacher there.

“I teach a class of about 35 students. The first day at college was spent in introductions. On the second day I took my first class — on Vedic literature — and if facial expressions are anything to go by, then I would say the students were very receptive,” says Sarathi, who has two younger brothers, one of them studying to be an engineer.

She plans to continue further studies in Sanskrit even while teaching, the aim being to earn a doctorate in the Vedas. Her fascination apart, why did she choose to make a career out of Sanskrit, a language no one speaks anymore? Sarathi replies: “Degrees in Sanskrit is all I have to build my career on. Moreover, people may have long stopped speaking Sanskrit, but I don’t find a decline in interest in the subject. When the College Service Commission advertised for the posts of Sanskrit teachers in West Bengal, as many as 1,600 candidates applied — the number tells you that the interest is very much alive, if not growing.”

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