Thursday, August 30, 2007

Hometruths from an educated illiterate lady.

September 7, 2007 is International Literacy Day.

(Over two-thirds of the world's 785 million illiterate adults are found in only eight countries (India, China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Indonesia, and Egypt); of all the illiterate adults in the world, two-thirds are women; extremely low literacy rates are concentrated in three regions, South and West Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Arab states, where around one-third of the men and half of all women are illiterate .......)

They also say that when you educate a man, you educate just one person; when you educate a woman, you educate an entire family . So true ..

(The following is a true story told to me, by the illiterate, smart lady who has been our family's household help for the last 25 years.)

In her words .....

" It's the story of the five of us. And I was the youngest of the children.

It begins with the five of us. My parents, my two brothers and me. Father worked for one of the biggest Engineering Colleges in Mumbai, in the department that did repairs all over campus. When I was little, every evening, , I'd accompany him to the Market Gate, where he would buy some leafy vegetables , and then sit for a while, chatting to the cobbler, his friend . In the old days, the college was not so big, and there were fewer people. At sundown, the darkness used to frighten me...all those trees, chirping crickets, hissing slithering creatures, and I would clutch my father's fingers tight as I skipped along home with him.

My two older brothers were in school - the huge school near the Market Gate. I used to feel so proud to see them going off each morning in their blue pants and white shirt. Sometimes I felt like going myself. Aaiyo ! How would I wear those blue frocks ? Exposing the knees and skirts billowing in the breeze ? Aaai would be furious. So I used to avidly pour through my brothers' books, and pretend I was studying them.

Years passed , and both my brothers left school. One passed 10th grade , the other did not. I was married off to someone recommended by our relatives in the native village.

At first it was exciting; a new life, new energy, new places. I had five children. One after another. Four sons, one daughter.

The more I did, the more they asked. They said I came from the BIG city, Mumbai. Who did I think I was? And then I heard the stories about the drinking. Every day, at sundown, it was so different from back home. Then the beatings began .

Children cowering.



How to live.

How not to live.

Then I heard about the Other woman. And decided I did not want to hear any more.

I confided in someone who worked in the textile mills in Mumbai and had come for a visit to the village. I asked him to tell my father and mother . That was the smartest thing I did.

My father and mother came. No words were necessary. The only words exchanged were with my husband's elder brother, who nodded. There were whispers, nods, fingers pointed at me , snide comments of other women folk. But my father carried my youngest , my daughter, in his arms , and asked me to walk ahead of him. With my mother, head held high.

I was back on campus. My children once again learned to be children. My father put them in the big school near the Market Gate. I started helping my mother , who worked as a household help in about four houses. She too was getting old. There were daughters-in-law in the house. They had their own households. So I took over my mothers work.

Like they say about the teachers in the college, when my mother grew old, she "retired".

Life has come full circle for me. My children, the sons, studied with the help of the uncles, indulged in by the grandparents, and I decided my daughter too would study, and get all the opportunities I never knew I could have.

This time it was my mother who supported me. My father was getting old. His sons were now working, one in the college and the other as a temporary worker elsewhere. So while I worked various houses doing housework and cleaning, my mother would wait to make fresh hot chappaties , for her granddaughter, when she came back from school. Looking on proudly as she struggled to do homework, sometimes with the help of her brothers, sometimes despite them.

And then came the day, I don't ever want to father collapsed one day on his way home from visiting a friend. He was rushed to the hospital. I ran all the way from working at someone's place, got my daughter from her school, and rushed to see my father. He was the one who had confidence in me, no doubt prodded and cajoled by my mother, who could see that my daughter should get opportunities I did not .

My mother was "super-un-educated", but super smart otherwise. She sat stoically at his bedside, occasionally coming out when his friends from department at college, came to see him, surreptitiously wiping her tears and looking somewhere into the distance....

He died two days later. My children missed him a lot. He motivated them to learn. He and my mother never went to school. But were more educated that many of the sirs and ladies I worked for, if you know what I mean.

Today , I am the same age my father was, when he came to bring me back from a hell , that I prefer to forget. I am both father and mother to my children. My daughter got married a few years ago. We had a reception in one of the halls on campus just like the folks I work for . My sons decided to give her a wedding she would never forget.

In some ways, she never forgot her wedding.

It was the beginning of seven months of a different type of hell. The husband had lied about his job, and never had one. The only place he could act superior, was with his wife. Aided and abetted by his parents. Whats more, he drank. And she was at the receiving end.

She did not have a father to call; just an old mother, and brothers.

But she had an education, she could read and write, and do simple sums, and was good at assorted craft work.

And so one evening she ran. And jumped on to a running suburban train that stopped at a station near our college. No footwear, dressed in the one sari that she had been wearing through the day. She went through the slush and mud and up the hill, and appeared at her mother's doorstep at 10 o'clock one night.

Was history repeating itself ? I don't know. There was no time to dwell on that.

I just opened my heart out to her. So did her brothers. She was not going back. She had an education, and we would look for a job for her. She would stand on her own feet, and not be trampled.

I think the world has changed . My daughter has a daily job at a place where they make ready made clothes. She also works and freelances on the sewing machine that one of the ladies I work for, gave her. Her grandmother can't see now. But her eyes light up when ever we visit. She is very proud of her granddaughter.

And all this because of someone who thought I should have a better life; someone who thought education is useful, and helped me send my daughter to school; you know, its not so much about what subjects you study ---its about learning to see a problem, and deciding how to solve it. My daughter went to school, then learned from life itself.

What education gave her was confidence.

Then I hear from the ladies i work for, about families where they celebrate someone's pregnancy in the house (with elaborate rituals), and then after finding out that it is a girl child, they force the daughter-in-law to abort. I have heard of girls undergoing four to five abortions.

All these people went to college.

I also hear about daughters-in-law being physically assaulted, humiliated and burnt, by the in laws, who operate as a group, brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law et al, and then deny that anything happened. And it all happens because they all want more material wealth , but from the parents of the girl. Pictures on the wall depict the son holding a scroll in his hand, wearing something like a cape, like you see in movies on TV , in a court scene.

These people too, went to college.

Then there are families where the unhappily married , educated , daughter taking refuge with her parents, is sent back forcefully to gleeful in-laws who continue to torture her for money and her refusal to follow immoral paths. The parents , in the meanwhile, keep up their shameful head in a society that is unaware of all this. After all, they are educated people . How can they be involved in all this ?

They all went to college, did'nt they ?

Sometimes I really wonder, am I literate, illiterate, educated, or uneducated ? "

End of story. Happy International Literacy Day !


  1. Yes, very touching and for me, very humbling. To be frank, I do not read your blog regularly but usually skim through them. Not because they are not good, but on the contrary, because I hope to find some time to sit back at home and read your blog at leisure. But like most other such indulgences, I never get around to it. :(
    But this one I couldn't stop reading! Just a moment back I was feeling pretty down about myself, wondering if I should be doing an MBA and the usual career anxieties. But reading this puts so much in perspective. Makes me realize how lucky I am and how insignificant are my worries.
    Aunty... thank you!

  2. Very well written inspiring post. The lines I liked the most were "its not so much about what subjects you study --- its about learning to see a problem, and deciding how to solve it". Sadly, a very few see education that way. It's still, primarily, for getting better jobs.

  3. Fantastic post. Don't know what feelings to express. Actually got the link to this article when you had posted a comment on Kavi's blog.

    Really difficult to tell sometimes who is the one who is educated and who is not.

  4. Heart wrenchingly true and sad.
    Education might make us confident, but then it might not...
    My mother always says, some people just have the right attitude. They take good decisions. In this case it was not history repeating itself, because this is a very common story, history repeated itself in how they handled it. I wish more mothers and also more daughters - many of who never dare to return, show the same courage.

    You write beautifully, I never pause while reading your amazing posts...