India’s National Education Policy 2020 strives for affordability, accessibility, quality, equity and accountability. It advocates institutions to achieve these goals through education based on cultural values and traditions, inclusivity and flexibility, languages and literature and a multi-disciplinary approach. In several places, it emphasizes the significance of indigenous literature for “holistic and multi-disciplinary education” not only at school but also in higher education.
I have taught management for almost a decade. The topic of my doctoral thesis was India’s management education system. However, I have yet to come across a business school that relies entirely or partially on texts originating in India. Indian authors are also few. The context is primarily American, even when the literature in different Indian languages is brimming with folktales, anecdotes, and cases relevant to our students and systems. Against this backdrop, I am trying to dig into texts that originated in India to teach concepts in MBA classes.
Loona, written in Punjabi — the language of the Indian state of Punjab — is one such story. The author is Shiv Kumar Batalavi, a renowned poet from Punjab and the youngest recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award (a significant literary honor in India). He won this award at the age of 31 for his magnum opus. He wrote an epic from a woman’s perspective, contrary to the previous versions, which were either told or written from the male viewpoint. I haven’t come across a better example to understand empathy.
Loona was Shiv’s perspective on the folktale of Puran Bhagat, the prince of Sialkot in Punjab in northern India. He was born to king Salvaan and queen Icchraan. As the tale goes, an astrologer suggested the king send Puran away for 12 years when he was born. While Puran was gone, the king married a girl much younger than him. She was Loona.
As destiny would have it, upon Puran’s return, Loona started spending time with him. She was her stepmother but felt attracted to him. Puran resisted and forbade her. Agitated at his refusal, Loona complained to the king that Puran violated her dignity. In a rage, the king ordered his men to amputate Puran’s limbs. They executed the king’s command and threw Puran into a well outside the village.
THE CHANGE IN PERSPECTIVE
While Loona’s character evokes shame and anger, Shiv changed the narrative and perspective. In Shiv’s Loona, she comes across as a human alive with emotions, a woman who loves deeply. He wrote that she was a woman of lower caste because, in reality and fiction, it is easier to suppress women and much easier if the women belong to lower castes. She was forced to marry; her desires were crushed. Later, she fell in love with a man who lived in the same house. She did not understand how she could be Puran’s mother. From where could she bring a mother’s warmth to a child her age? She insisted that Puran was not her child!
Her pain was continuous, intertwined with humiliation. She was forcibly married to an older man, suppressed, expected to be a queen and a mother to a full-grown man, and finally renounced by the man she loved. In bitterness, she lied to the king – who was also overpowered by his temper.
What is the link between these two versions, and how can this be referred to in a class? Loona is the same, and so are the other characters. While one hates Loona in the first version, Shiv’s writing creates empathy for her. The dictionary meaning of empathy is “the ability to imagine how another person is feeling.” It is different from sympathy because it is beyond understanding the other person; it is about experiencing the emotion in unison. Empathy is coming to the centre stage with debates on mental health and well-being gaining ground, especially after the pandemic. Forbes recently explored how empathy is here to stay and how it will shape the future.
As we discuss Loona’s tale to understand workplace empathy in the class, we realize and appreciate the possibility and significance of different perspectives. We understand that empathy is simple to explain but difficult to attain, for its route runs through a tunnel where the ego is brutally crushed. We talk about how it begins with a realization that one may not be correct and ends with an acknowledgement that the other person may be right. We also acknowledge that empathizing is becoming more challenging as we are moving towards self-centered, fast-paced lifestyles with a dominant need for our own spaces. Only the strongest can dare to be empathetic because it is incredibly exhausting. But then, we appreciate how it can be liberating. It can answer the ‘whys’ and the ‘hows’. It can make one calmer — free from inhibitions, prejudices and ego.
As our workplaces and workers are becoming more aggressive and less compassionate, more materialistic and less happy, and more competitive and less empathetic, folktales like Loona can help us understand each other. It may not solve all our problems but can give us the strength to deal with people and with ourselves. It may be one step forward in the direction of creating a better workplace.
THE WAY FORWARD
With globalization uniting the world and English serving as the business language, Indian institutions have driven away from indigenous literature and languages. The New Education Policy attempts to bring back the focus. There are provisions for restructuring higher education institutions and inviting foreign institutions to set up their campuses in the country. There is room for experimentation and flexibility, devising new and innovative ways of learning. There is an emphasis on building institutions rooted in cultural values and context. In the light of these recommendations and more, it will be exciting to see how the new policy shapes the graduate management education programs in this decade.
We return to the roots, not only because we must do it, but also because it could be a delightful experience!
Ritika is an assistant professor in the area of General Management and Strategy at the Department of Management Studies, Malaviya National Institute of Technology-Jaipur, India. She has a Ph.D. from the Indian Institute of Technology-Roorkee. More details on her website here.