Is it about fitting in?

Chintan Girish Modi

When I was invited to write on the topic of school uniforms, what immediately came to mind was Arundhathi Subramaniam’s poem ‘Habitat’, published in her second book ‘Where I Live’. It begins thus:
I think I was nine
when I told Sonal, Gunjan, Devki and Shalini
on the school bus
that I didn’t understand why we wore clothes
except as a matter of seasonal cover.

This casual remark by the narrator of the poem got an instant response from her peers. There were clear signs of disapproval, and in minutes, she was excluded. She tried some damage control but was unable, she says, “to belong to the ranks of the immaculately attired.”

It is an exciting poem to spend an afternoon with, mulling over the metaphor of cloth and attire, inviting students to share what comes up in their minds as they read and re-read this poem. The narrator does not use the word ‘uniform’, and it might be worth exploring why, in keeping with the overall tone of the poem.

The last part of the poem gets philosophical, and it is extremely valuable to bring this up for discussion. It does not need to be explained. Students can work their way through this, and offer interpretations that may not even occur to our adult minds.

I’ve realised since
that I’m not alone,
that there are others
who spend their lives trying
to fit into clothes without
a wrinkle, a crease, a doubt,
hoping they’ll never get caught
halfway between shedding
a Jurassic hide and looking
for a more muslin
habitat of skin,
a more limpid way of getting
to the gist of themselves.

There is ample material for classroom conversation here, especially with teenage students who will be able to see effortlessly the connections between the words on the page and their own experiences. The teacher’s role here is to just introduce questions, and see what happens in the classroom as different students express their ideas. Some of the questions one could work with are:

The author is an independent educator, writer and researcher based in Mumbai. His work is at the intersection of education, arts and peace-building with a special focus on relations between India and Pakistan. He can be reached at [email protected].

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