From Chapter 9: Who Knows What
We have two maids in Bombay. The older one, RB, is in charge. One year I flew back from America, and, as usual, the first thing I wanted to do at home was gaze lovingly at the bookshelves that cover all my bedroom walls. My books, my babies.
“What's this?” I screeched. “What happened to my books?”
“I made that silly deaf thing (the junior maid) clean them and arrange them,” RB said proudly. “We put them in order for you.”
I was dumbfounded. My carefully arranged books, for which I've devised categories and categories within categories, had been taken out, lovingly dusted, and put back by size. The columns marched proudly across each shelf, with the tall fat hardcovers leading the way (How Things Work next to The Satanic Verses, and at the other end, The Lover improbably next to Peanuts). Some were even upside down.
Don't think for a moment that RB is stupid. She has over a dozen people whom she supports, her ne'er-do-well children and grandchildren. She has worked abroad, she has fought off illness and poverty, she has arranged marriages and rearranged life. She just, like Mati, and like more than half of India's women, cannot read.
I asked Mati once, “Would you like to be able to read a book?”
She laughed heartily.
Just as it is impossible for someone who cannot read to imagine what reading is and what it does, it is very hard for me, for whom written words are like air, like blood, to imagine a life without books, a life in which traffic signs are mysteries, and the writing on cans and boxes just so many squiggles. It is hard for me to imagine having to stay within the bounds of my own experience, to never be able to open a book and escape to Iceland, or Limpopo, or 1459.
Mati doesn't read, although she can accurately count money. This is an important skill Savitri, the Katkari woman from Shingdol, can't count money and she often gets cheated. Mati has no maps, no clock, no calendar. She never goes to Ashok's house to watch TV because she can't stand the noise and violence. Her world is Tembre and the jungle, and the few places she has been to see relatives or visit a temple. She did have a train ride to some far place once, she told me.
“Now where was it? I don't know exactly. I saw white rabbits there, and white crows. There were giant snakes. Someone took me there…” It wasn't Bombay, that much she knows, because she is convinced that if she went to Bombay, she would die.
Mati says she went to school for five years, but she has forgotten what she learnt. Neither of her daughters went to school.
“What about Raghunath?” I asked.
“Even he can't write.
“But he went to school, isn't it?
“Yes, he went to school. No he didn't go to school. He went only for four days and then said, ‘I won't go, the teacher beats us.' And he never went after that.
“So did Mani and Jani's children go to school?
Yes. And Chandar's son, the big one, he goes to school far away. He goes through the Peth ghats.” Ghats are mountain routes
“Does he know how to read and write?
“Yes. He knows everything.
Most of her grandchildren went to school at least for a short time. School is good, she says, because in school the children get lots of free things.
“They give them everything. In the morning they are given breakfast. Then again after some time they get a snack. Chandar's son studied there so he knows everything. He would save some peanuts to bring home. They give jaggery and sugar also.
“Is that a school for Adivasis or is it open to everybody?
“Everybody. Children come from as far away as Jambulwadi to study there. They have great fun in that school. But then one boy, he was ill or something, he died. So now, the children don't go. But this boy, Chandar's son, he goes to school.
“That's good! What will he do when he grows up? Will he get a job?
“Yes, Adivasis need jobs, isn't it?
Mai, Jani's daughter, went to the balwadi in Tembre when she was small. Balwadis are government-run crèches that are quite common in Indian villages. Babies and toddlers get dropped off, and one or two women look after them, feed them and play with them every day. It is a very progressive system and one that the city of New York would do well to emulate.
After the balwadi, she went to school for a few months, but then she left because her mother needed her to work at home. She can't write. Her brother and sister were still in school when she left, and she wasn't sure if they would make it until seventh grade, which is as high as the local school goes.
The Tembre government school opened in 1953. It is a very friendly place, split up into two buildings. The younger classes all fit together in one big room, and so do the older ones. There are four schoolmasters, who rotate every few years. They arrive in Tembre, blown there by machinations on high, and leave their imprints on a generation of girls and boys. We have always been friendly with the masters, and had a lot to do with the school. My father goes and lectures there occasionally, on snakes or orchids or whatever he feels like. We donate money for painting the walls, for books and cricket bats.
Mr. Bhakre, one of the masters, was very keen that Tom go visit the children during the days of our monsoon wedding. There was high excitement in the village and everybody wanted to view the bridegroom. School opens at 11 in the morning, and at 10:15 Ramesh came and spirited away Tom. I was feeling lazy, and I also didn't want to interfere with them, so although Tom speaks only English, Ramesh speaks none, and the school is run in Marathi, I let them go alone.
An hour later, Tom came back with shining eyes, completely smitten by the children. They were all early, he said, all of them couldn't wait for school to start. I knew they're always early there, milling around the schoolhouse by 10:30, but it never struck me until that moment quite how wonderful that is. These bright-eyed children are so eager to learn, and so full of energy. They all filed in, some with baby brothers and sisters in tow, and as soon as they saw Tom they all got up and sang him songs of welcome. He didn't know what they were saying, but he knew the music was tailored to him, because every few verses they all sang out, “Tom Unger!” Then he stood at the blackboard and they practiced their English a little with him. He showed them where he came from and then gave them a lecture on neon, complete with diagrams. The schoolmaster beamed, Ramesh beamed, Tom drew and everyone was happy.
Sometimes the children all troop across the river and come and visit us, for all the world as if we're the exotic animals at the local zoo. They have fun in school, although they do get beaten sometimes Mr. Bhakre isn't much for beating, but one of his colleagues definitely relies on the cane as an educational tool.
Ramesh, like most of the non-Adivasi men in the village, went to school for a few years and can read and write Marathi. In this generation, more people can speak Hindi as well. Some of the Hindu children go to high school outside the village; very few of the Adivasis do.
In my family, we have many learned uncles and aunts, but in our immediate family, Adil and I both made it through graduate school, while our parents stopped at high school. Baba started college, but insists he flunked out because he was too busy playing cricket. In India, schooling involves mostly learning by rote. When we were children, I simply learned all my textbooks by heart and did very well in school. Adil refused and so did poorly. We moved to America during high school and found, to everyone's surprise, that Adil is absolutely brilliant. He sailed into MIT. For both of us, suddenly coming to a place where we were encouraged to think and create in the classroom was a species of miracle, heady and frightening. We are lucky to have had the chance, and now our big fat degrees open doors that would otherwise have remained firmly closed to us. In America, our parents had no money, but they encouraged us to apply to the best places and, I still don't quite understand how or why, we got in.
The educational system in India is simultaneously wonderful and terrible. There is free primary school education, but children often cannot partake of it. Nationwide, 35% of Indians are considered illiterate, and 66% of these are women. In Maharashtra, the overall literacy rate is 64%, but only 37% of tribal people can read. Although we have made great strides, India is still worse than China or any of the African countries, in terms of literacy. It is especially bad for girls, because either they get pulled out early to work at home, or they aren't sent at all: why educate a girl who is going to leave anyway?