The chapter, Memories of Childhood, includes two autobiographical excerpts written by two distinguished female authors. The first extract was written by Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, who belonged to the nineteenth century community of Native Americans. Since, female writers were not published as much during that time, she had adopted the pen name Zitkala-Sa for her articles. The second extract comes from a contemporary Indian writer, Bama, who belongs to the Dalit community.
Both writers face discrimination and prejudice early in their lives and as adults they try to heal and come to terms with their anguish by reflecting upon the difficult experiences. To know that you belong to a section of society who is looked down upon and ill-treated by others is not easy for young children. In their naïve minds they cannot understand this form of oppression because to them all people are human beings and should be treated equally. The topic of race and caste has been explored intrinsically in this dual narrative. The stories range from a conservative school which promoted a culture of hate for people of colour to an ordinary village square in India where the oppression of the lower-caste people goes unnoticed, lost in the colours of rural life. The socially privileged people enjoy their unwarranted superiority and an atmosphere of inequality and subjugation pervades the two accounts. Readers are encouraged to ponder upon the difficult circumstances of the two individual young girls and how they symbolically overcome social hurdles in their own little ways. Zitkala-Sa went on to break social norms and become a Native American literary icon in the nineteenth century. Bama worked hard and studied relentlessly to become the class-topper whom everybody favoured despite her Dalit background. The importance of education and social awareness has been highlighted in the conclusion. The two girls teach us how to remain dignified in tough times and how knowledge can be weaponised to fight against the evils of race and caste.
Memories of Childhood Short Questions and Answers: Solved
1. The two accounts that you read above are based in two distant cultures. What is the commonality of theme found in both of them?
Yes, the two different childhood accounts are based in two distant cultures and yet they have similarities in theme. The text ‘Memories of Childhood’ engages us in the childhood reflections of two celebrated writers, who look back upon their younger years full of vivid memories. Each narrator gives us a piece of their childhood where they faced oppression and discrimination in various forms. Both the little girls were forced to endure humiliation and poverty as members of a marginalised community.
In the first account, ‘The cutting of my Long Hair’, author Zitkala-Sa draws the reader’s attention to the harsh prejudice prevalent in the Native American culture against women. She recounts her own unwillingness to let go of her blanket because she felt ashamed and immodest within herself. In her culture hair cut short was a sign of cowardice and made her feel like a defeated warrior. She couldn’t face herself after the cutting of her long hair. The event was etched in her memory as she felt the ‘cold blades of the scissors’ on her neck. This harrowing account of a little girl trapped in a strange place with no one to comfort her is similar to the next story in ‘Memories of Childhood’.
The title of this second tale is ‘We too are Human Beings’ where the narrator Bama, tells us of an incident which happened when she was in the third class. She belonged to the untouchable caste who were regarded with a sense of disgust and disrespect in society for no apparent reason. The lower-caste people were subjected to all sorts of indecency and it reminds us of the plight of the women in Native American culture. The untouchables were made to live in the margins of society to do only menial work like work in the fields, run errands, and bow to their masters. They were supposed to make their presence unfelt by the higher caste people. Both stories end on a note of rebellion against the existing depraved norms of society and with a hope of improving it.
2. It may take a long time for oppression to be resisted, but the seeds of rebellion are sowed early in life. Do you agree that injustice in any form cannot escape being noticed even by children?
According to modern psychology, children have a higher sensory than adults when it comes to detecting pressure, injustice and misery. Their minds are active and observant which helps them absorb the environment around them. Since children have pure minds yet uninfluenced by societal prejudices, they can make correct assumptions of a particular situation. Both Bama and Zitkala-Sa were exposed to strange and discriminatory customs at a young age and the experience of it instigated feelings of rebellion inside them.
Most adults in oppressive situations are de-sensitized towards crimes committed against them by the ruling caste or gender. The children, however, see the incidents with a fresh perspective and want to change things. Given the right opportunity, they want to rebel against the injustices and demand honour and dignity from their oppressors. As seen in the narration, the idea of resistance was sown early in the minds of these two little girls, who felt determined to change things for their community. Therefore, we can safely assume that injustices of any form do not escape children and in fact leaves a deep impression upon their young minds.
Memories of Childhood Long Questions and Answers: Solved
1. Bama’s experience is that of a victim of the caste system. What kind of discrimination does Zitkala-Sa’s experience depict? What are their responses to their respective situations?
The story of Bama follows the rural and simple life of a small village in India where casteism is still very prevalent among the people. The little girl is exposed to discrimination even before she could articulate the word in her head. One evening while returning from school she sees an elderly man walking animatedly across the street holding a packet of food with the tips of his fingers and trying to avoid any proximity with it. After hobbling along in this fashion, he hands the packet of food to his master who then proceeds to eat from it. Bama is amused by this incident but when her elder brother explains to her the reason for the old man’s behaviour and what untouchability means, she stopped laughing. The notion of discrimination based on caste dawned on her innocent mind.
Zitkala-Sa also goes through a similar experience albeit a harsher one in the strange ‘land of apples’ where she was far removed from the warmth and familiarity of home. She had grown up with the belief that only unskilled warriors were made to cut their hair as a sign defeat. For her, the long, heavy hair on her head was a sign of dignity. On the very first day at her new school her hair was cut short by a ‘pale-faced’ woman who had no apparent respect for her culture or consideration for her feelings. The discrimination was in the difference in treatment meted out to Native American Women. The girl, in that moment felt a loss in spirit as she remembered all the indignities she was made to suffer at the hands of the ‘White’ people.
Both girls responded with a sense of rebellion and though their spirits were crushed in the moment, they renewed themselves with knowledge and waged battles against the existing dogmas. Zitkala-Sa felt like an animal driven by a herder when she had to endure the humiliation of getting her hair cut at the Carlisle Indian School. Later, the same girl grew up to be a remarkable woman with extraordinary gifts as a writer. Through her articles, she criticised Carlisle Indian School and fought against the evils of oppression. Education became a source of power for Bama, when her Annan advised her to “study with care, learn all you can. If you are always ahead in your lessons, people will come to you of their own accord and attach themselves to you. Work hard and learn.” Bama took this advice to heart and excelled in class to prove to herself that she is worth much more than what the caste structure in her society dictates. This way untouchability never mattered to her and she made many new friends at her school.