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Eng Lit(tered)

Studying English literature is not a cinch. And taking an English literature exam is even less so, writes Jairaj Singh.

india Updated: Jul 06, 2006 03:56 IST

Studying English literature is not a cinch. And taking an English literature exam is even less so. During my first-year English exam, a prolific student asked me the story of Pride and Prejudice one minute into the examination. The second-year exams made me face more difficult questions, though not from the question paper. And the next year I actually faced a kill-yourself-or-give-up-studying situation.

Yet, despite the hazards involved, many take up the literature course every year, relying on the knowledge and skills perfected in school. Going by which, a ‘critical analysis’ is an exercise in elaboration of the story coupled with presentation of standard, stereotyped perspectives imbibed from snatches heard when not sleeping during lectures. Sample this gem from an analysis of the derivations from the Bible in Milton’s Paradise Lost: ‘Eve was the bad one; God said don’t eat the apple’.

All in all, studying literature is not easy at the under-graduate level. (Okay, perhaps not for you, Dilton Doiley!) Just consider how for most of Shakespeare’s plays, one can only tell if they are a tragedy or a comedy by reading a Ramji Lall guide, that Chaucer’s English can give the most hardworking student sleepless nights, if not more, and that Niccolo Machiavelli scares you even before you have finished reading his second name.

So here I am, sitting on a stool against a table that may give way if I lean on it for a second more than three hours and five minutes. Extraordinarily, there is a new development this time — a great number of my fellow students are writing away furiously. However, the zeal seems to vanish within half an hour, and they begin to cough and murmur. Some even start visiting the toilet frequently.

Not surprisingly, I see about five students being asked to stand and leave. On their tables lie books and notes that have been cramped onto chits of paper in a most illegible shorthand. And on their faces is the sheepish look that is quite outstanding.

Things get a bit more difficult when people start tapping you on your shoulder and look at you with a helpless expression, begging for an answer. I turn around and pass on a few bits of information, like the poet’s name or the title of the play. But a few moments later they start nudging me, and I know what I have to do — narrate, in brief, the Iliad.

So by the end of three hours, I’m not only relieved that the table is still in place, but also that I’ve missed a nervous breakdown by a second. And then an unmatched feeling of relief that this was the last time my companions targeted me as The One Who Will Answer Everyone’s Questions.