uday basu
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Kolkata, 21 July
Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas in the epic ~ the Mahabharata ~ was, “as everyone knows”, “promiscuous” and her son, Arjun, was a “bastard”. As such Arjun cannot be worshipped as “a god in man”. For, “how can a god come out of the womb of a prostitute ?” This was how 19th century poet Michael Madhusudan Dutta portrayed the characters of the two central figures of the epic in his poem “Beerangana Kabya”. The poem, composed on the model of Ovid&’s Heroic Epistles, is written in the form of a collection of 11 letters in blank verse containing epistles by heroic women characters of the two Indian epics and legends, including Shakuntala, Kaikeyee, Surpanakha, Draupadi, Doohshala and Urvashi.
The West Bengal Council of Higher Secondary Education has chosen the epistle, “To Neeladhwaj from Jana”, for students of Class XI in the new syllabus introduced from this year ~ which has some teachers and academics squirming.
The text hasn’t officially reached the students because of a case being  heard in Calcutta High Court following complaints of improper tender process for eight text-books by the council. The court has already slapped a ban on the sale of the books, even though the Bengali and English texts are available in many book shops.
In the prescribed poem, Jana, the wife of king Neeladhwaj, is inconsolably wailing over the killing of her son, Prabeer, by Arjun after Prabeer had stopped the ceremonial horse being led by Arjun to proclaim the authority of the Pandavas all over the country. As Neeladhwaj is getting ready to welcome the killer of his son, Jana vents her fury in her epistle. 
To emphasise the immorality of Neeladhawj&’s act Jana states it is patently ignominious to worship Arjun, born to a “whore”, while his wife ~ Draupadi~ is also “unchaste” (having five husbands). In a vitriolic outpouring of scorn she brands Draupadi as “the worthy daughter-in-law of her mother-in-law”. Jana also castigates the composer of the Mahabarata ~ the sage Dwaipayan, the son of Satyabati ~ for impregnating the two wives of his brother, Bichitrabirja.
Many teachers who have already begun to explain the poem in the class say they find it extremely embarrassing to tell the teenaged students about illegitimate children, promiscuity and fornication as depicted in the poem.
“There&’s nothing wrong in the iconoclastic interpretation of the epic characters by the poet, but I think it&’s too early to introduce such themes to teenagers. I had to caution my students not to use such words as bastard and prostitute outside the classroom,”
said a senior teacher of Bengali of a reputed school.
Prof Pabitra Sarkar, academic and scholar of Bengali, told The Statesman : “The inclusion of the poem is really unwarranted, given the age of the students. Teachers are not to blame if they feel uneasy to explain the choicest invectives. Also, the selectors should have been more careful about chronology as they put Michael&’s poem before Lalan&’s, though Lalan preceded him.”