Literate encounters: rural women and educated me

Deeply suspicious of institutions and organizations, but unable to rest easy with my own little nest-egg, I look around for folks I can help in any way– financially mostly, but also with a bit of personal involvement.  Here, in Puttaparthi, most village folk (even those in their thirties) are either illiterate or literate just enough to read labels with difficulty, having just scraped through high school, about tenth grade.  Exploring various definitions of ‘literacy,’ commonly accepted as the skill of reading and writing, I came upon the following by the U.N.:

“[This] view, responding to recent economic, political and social transformations, including globalization, and the advancement of information and communication technologies, recognizes that there are many practices of literacy embedded in different cultural processes, personal circumstances and collective structures”….‘Literacy’, throughout history and across societies, has encapsulated a varying range of skills and erudition, but its antonym, ‘illiteracy’, has always been synonymous with disadvantage. It is this definition that, perhaps, elucidates the concept best.  [http://www.unric.org/en/literacy/27791-the-evolving-definition-of-literacy]”

Photo: S.B. Krivit

Photo: S.B. Krivit

Even here, in rural, backwoods Rayalseema, I commonly notice all manner of villagers talking busily into their mobile phones.   Sitting on a bullock cart, jogging along with a stack of hay on tarred roads, the ‘driver’ wields his mobile phone while he urges on the skinny, underfed bullock.  Inside the ashram, too, I’ve come across maids and  sweepers chatting importantly on their phones.  I knew that they probably weren’t ‘literate’ but couldn’t figure out how they managed until a ‘dhobi’ or washerwoman wanted my phone number.

woman phoneSaraswati fished out her phone, laughed, and asked me to enter my number.  “How are you going to know that its my number when you want to call me,” I asked. She told me that she’d assign a symbol to my number, so that she’d know it was me.  Showing me different symbols, dots, dashes, asterisks, she reeled off the names behind the numbers.  Remembering symbols is impossible for me, my educated mind and memory used to the alphabet, but Sarawati had formulated her own personal code. Living here, I’ve learned not to label folks easily, even ‘literacy’ becomes an unclassifiable spectrum.  As in the UNIC quote,  strategies like Saraswati’s are part of “”many practices of literacy embedded in different cultural processes…”

Although I’m not actively searching for girls who want to study further,  I stumble across quite a few without looking, given where I live.  In Rayalseema [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rayalaseema] a district that suffers perennial water scarcity, the villagers eke out a bare living from seasonal crops.  Thanks to its founder, the ashram provides free schooling, but getting into college after that is impossible for the villagers as they possess only very basic English language skills when they make through from high school.  atp-frontOffering free education, Swami’s women’s college in Anantapur nearby, is now part of a whole university.  Ironically,  the standard of literacy required is beyond the locals.  In fact, I studied for 5 years in his college, and graduated with a Master’s which got me free education in the States!

The villagers, or original inhabitants of Puttaparthi before it became a bustling tourist town thanks to Swami, depend on the infrastructure of the ashram (and its attendant free hospitals, colleges, schools, canteens) for employment outside that of the land.woman farmer   The ashram proper employs a number of yard sweepers (also block janitors), a sweeper for each block of tiny apartments.  Most of them have been around for years.  Hard as the job is, it comes with benefits, and so prized, often passed down through generations of the same family–mother to daughter/ son, or even husband to wife.  Non-gender specific, the women actually outnumber the men.  Gangamma has been doing the job for years, arriving in the ashram at dawn, going home to her house in the village for lunch, and returning in the afternoon for another stint until about 5 pm.

Technically she’s not assigned to my block, but on the ground floor as I am, with a little private garden, I’m a face made familiar through the years.  During festival seasons, especially when Swami was alive, the place gets a noisy influx of pilgrims from the outlying areas.  Out for a spree with the excuse of religion, farm workers themselves, they don’t look for toilets but search for any semi-private spot to squat and do their business, more the women than the men.  At such times, I keep a wary eye out for such offenders.   Sure enough, a couple of years ago, I found a fetid pile of human feces in the corner, under some plants. At a loss about how to clear it up, I was glad to see a trio of sweepers cleaning up my neighbor’s yard in the absence of the regular guy.

sweepersNoticing me and my quandary,  the women wished me and assured me they would deal with the mess.  Curious to see how they would clean up human excrement, I hung around.  The two who had assured me most vociferously continued to sweep, but the third, the one I was least acquainted with, the quietest of the lot, disappeared.  Returning with a cardboard carton in hand, she proceeded to flatten it and, then, neatly swept up the stinking pile and deposited it in the waste bin.  Impressed with her wordless efficiency, I asked for her name and tipped her well.  That was how Ganga (the ‘amma’ is a suffix denoting formality, i.e. Gangamma) and I came to be acquainted.

After that incident, I would run into her sweeping elsewhere while returning from my morning walks.  Always quiet but smiling, she wished me on sight.  Dark and sloe-eyed, I find her the epitome of Indian womanhood, her hair oiled and coiled up in a bun, clad in a simple working woman’s sari.  Every so often, when the irregular worker assigned to my block failed to show, she appeared to sweep out my yard, so we got acquainted over a couple of years.  But, returning after a gap of two months from my Goa hiatus, I saw her no longer until she turned up at my door, suddenly one day.  Immersed in my writing, I was impatient, and told her to return when I was free.  Only later, when my composition was done did her words and appearance hit my consciousness, prompting a wave of guilt.  Teary eyed and hair in disarray, she’d appeared to tell me that her mother had died with no warning, just fourteen days after the death of her father who’d been ailing for some time.

Artist N.S. Abdul Rahim (Kerala, India)

Artist N.S. Abdul Rahim (Kerala, India)

Kicking myself for my selfishness, I inquired after her when I came upon the other sweepers.  Thankfully Ganga showed up to meet me again, and I could hear her out.  Weeping inconsolably, she repeated that the death of her mum had been a total shock. Bedraggled though she looked,  she’d returned to work.  In the weeks that followed, her face grew lined and she lost weight in her grief.  There no way for me to console her, I could only tell her that she should watch herself, that time would heal the pain a bit, even if, at the moment of loss, sadness overwhelmed all thought.  Diffident in the face of her loss, I presented her with a couple of my own mum’s saris and some money, poor consolation.

Over the troubled course of a month, Ganga continued disturbed and weary, but slowly her face regained its old contours.  Approaching me again, she said that she wanted her daughter to meet me.  Her daughter had recently finished high school, and wanted now to go on to study for her intermediate,  a two years interim course before graduate college.  Wondering if her daughter liked studying, and if her grades were any good, I questioned Ganga, unwilling to assume responsibility on hearsay.  “She wants to study further.  She’ll be the first woman to study beyond school in our family.  Anyway, please amma, I want her to meet you.  She looks like you, her nose, her face.”

I acquiesced.  What else could I do?  I warned Ganga, however, that I wouldn’t finance her daughter’s studies completely, although I could help out a bit if I thought the girl was serious.  She smiled at me:  “I’m not asking for any financial help.  I just want her to meet with you.”  So I did.

Pramila, her daughter arrived with together with Ganga,  and two small, restless kids, one her younger sister, the other a cousin.  In India, the concept of family is rather different from the West:  even cousins are commonly referred to as sisters or brothers. Until they clarify the relationship for me, I routinely get misled and assume they are all part of one family.  Although Ganga has four daughters, one older than Pramila and the last younger, she’d brought her niece along rather than her other two kids.  Looking far younger than her years, Pramila was quiet when I questioned if she was the oldest:
“Hey Ganga, I wanted to meet your oldest daughter, the one who is going to study.”
“My eldest is at home, my family has decided that she shouldn’t continue.  She’ll stay home and look after the house when I come for work.  Anyway, her eyes are weak. She wears spectacles.”
“But, glasses are not a big deal, I wear them too.  I’ve been wearing glasses since I was eight years old.”  I assured her.
Ganga remained unconvinced, “When she was about 10, the doctors slit a stye on her eyelid.  Then, they told me that she couldn’t see too well, that she’s to wear specs.  It’s better she remains at home.”
“What are you planning for her? Marriage?”

Source: The Times Of India Group © BCCL

Source: The Times Of India Group
© BCCL

She nodded hesitantly, “Pramila’s the one whom we want to send to Anantapur for further studies. My younger brother is checking colleges now. They ask for a capitation fee* of about 2 lakhs (ie about 200,00 rupees), then we pay fees of about forty thousand.”  [on the controversy about capitation fees charged by colleges and schools for entrance in India, see http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/keyword/capitation-fee/featured/4 and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capitation_fee ]
“What subjects do you want to take for your major?” I ask Pramila who looks totally out of it.
Like a parrot, she responds, “CEP.”
girl studentsI’ve no idea what the letters stand for, so I ask her to explain and learn they stand for “Civics, Economics, Politics,” one of the majors possible for an intermediate degree. On questioning Pramila if these are her favorite subjects, or the ones in which she gets the highest grades, she replies in the negative. Her cousin, studying for a degree in Anantapur at present, has told her she should choose this major.
“What do you want to do after this?”
“I’ll go to TTC.”
More initials, here they stand for “Teacher Training Center.” And at the Center, what is she training toward? A degree, a diploma, a certificate? She doesn’t know. Is the major relevant to entering TTC? She doesn’t know. “My brother has told me,” is her invariable response.

Gradually, I get her to come out of the shell of wordless disinterest, goading her with questions on her favorite subjects, on the papers she written best in her exams. Pramila has given me the certificate of her overall grade in school finals, a C-, but she doesn’t know her individual grades in different subjects. Finally, she admits that she feels that she’s done best in Physics and Biology. Surprised by that, I ask her to meet me again. After she checks, she’ll know for sure the subjects she’s done best in, and I’m curious if they tally with her own estimation. Poking her further out of her shell, I prod,

“do you want to end up doing housework even after your studies? If you don’t have a goal in life, if you don’t decide where your interests lie, and just listen to your brother, or, later, your husband, what is the point of your parents spending so much money on you? You’ll be the first woman in the family to do further studies, you shouldn’t let your parents or yourself down.”

Unfortunately, without proper guidance academically and emotionally, there’s an all too real possibility that Pramila could end up later in life as a maid or a sweeper.

Graduating from an ‘English medium’ school, Pramila doesn’t speak English, not even broken English. When I speak in English to her, I’m not totally certain that she understands me. But, by the end of the visit she’s more animated, and promises me to talk to her cousin, go to the Teacher Training Center in Anantapur, and to check her grades for individual subjects. I don’t set too much store by these promises. I’m not sure how long the enthusiasm will last, though Ganga assures me her daughter will meet me again. At the last I spell out the word g-o-a-l to her, explain what it means, and tell that she has to define some goals in life for herself.

Artist: Loui Jover

Artist: Loui Jover

I’d like to help further her education, but only if she will help herself, will attempt to become a woman who thinks for herself, and works towards some (any) goals in life. Motivation is hard to sustain in her circumstances. I doubt that Pramila will come by, but pray she will!

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