I am appalled by your apathy. When Professor Das delivered this statement, we were sitting in the verdant lawns of Delhi University on a pleasant October morning. That itself will give you a fair idea about how long ago it was. For can they sit outside in verdant green lawns (are there any left?) in Delhi anymore? Is October pleasant? However in this case the setting was perfect and to give Professor Das due credit thoughtful too. Even at 9:00 AM not many possess the moral fiber to be pert and snappy especially when discussing ‘The Elements of Semiology’. Barthes at any time of the day requires a certain kind of aptitude. In us it was clearly lacking, regardless of the hour, even with the added knowledge that this will “come in the exams”. The setting though kept us alert, and occupied otherwise.
The cause for the comment was the fact that being diligent scholars we had carefully read to the last page, even the last alphabet exactly the portion that had been prescribed for the current tutorial, the introduction and first few chapters, not a page more, though in hindsight probably a few pages less. So when in the discussion the good Professor started talking about the ‘non-prescribed’ portion, the blank expression on our face was a pretty accurate sign of how clueless we were. And so the Professor with her crisp accent, and that certain tone because of which quite frankly everyone was a bit terrified of her, delivered the fateful line.
Unlike her, Professor Baviskar probably had very accurate information regarding our mindset. She always ended the announcement of the reading list with the words, “And don’t just read the underlined sentences. Make an effort to at least read complete paragraphs.” But then she too not so long ago had attended similar tutorials, even borrowed the same books from the library, and knowing that certain streak in her, probably with a twinkle in the eye even underlined the least important passages.
However it’s the words of Professor Das that became immortal. In the days since that tutorial I have whispered them many a times, in many different circumstances. I don’t know about the other four in the tutorial group but for me they have become a connotation. My limited reading of Barthes is probably flawed but these words and the circumstances they were uttered in have come to signify something much greater than a tutorial discussion many moons ago. That belief that it’s necessary to only know enough to “pass the exam” or get a promotion or achieve a certain level of success in life. That inability, widespread and on constant display, to read. That lack of curiosity to look beyond that, which concerns us. Aren’t these all manifestations of reading only prescribed portions, without making an effort to even glance at the next page? Epitomizing the appallingly apathetic culture of clearing exams without any concern for acquiring knowledge. Chasing lifestyles without any empathy for life. Of living in cocoons blind to everything else beyond.
Postscript: Caterpillars aren’t blind. They have six pairs of simple eyes (ocelli) that can detect changes in light intensity, but cannot form an image.
After writing this post through a strange combination of Google searches (lets just say it’s something I do) I suddenly came upon this: “The caterpillars in distress, starved, shelter-less, chilled with cold at night, cling obstinately to the silk ribbon covered hundreds of times, because they lack the rudimentary glimmers of reason which would advise them to abandon it.” (The Life of the Caterpillar by J. Henri Fabre, 1916)