On Meeting An ‘Illiterate’

As my daughter approaches that miraculous stage in her cognitive and intellectual development when reading independently will start to become a possibility, opening up a portal to a world whose outlines she has, with some astonishment and delight, started  to sense, I am reminded of a childhood encounter which first made clear to me the singular importance of literacy.

During my childhood, an annual visit to my grandfather’s home was a much-anticipated event. One of the indulgences that awaited us there was the opportunity to eat food cooked by my grandfather’s faithful cook, Gopal, a long-serving and dedicated worker who had, over the years, perfected his craft to a point where it surpassed my grandmother’s cooking. Now, she supervised the kitchen from a distance, and left its daily operations to him. He awoke early in his quarters adjoining the main residence, fired up the coal braziers used for food preparation, laid out his cooking implements and got to work. Tea, breakfast, lunch, evening tea, dinner–these issued from his domain effortlessly, each consumed gratefully and appreciatively by our family. An almost literal icing on the cake were his dessert treats, made for us youngsters on special request. He was supremely indulgent in this regard, ever willing to rustle up some concoction or the other which would artfully deploy sugar or jaggery in manners previously unimagined. We–my cousins and I–saw him as an avuncular figure; there was a great deal of affection and respect in our interactions.

One aspect of this affectionate interaction was a desire on the part of my brother and I to share with him–as best as we could–our lives elsewhere: on air force bases, in New Delhi. To this end, one fine morning, I excitedly called Gopal over to look at a book–borrowed for a four-week loan–from a library in New Delhi. I pointed at an illustration and the caption, which I think, had amused me to no end. Gopal laughed along with me and then, abruptly, he said, “What does it say?” I replied, “Here, take a closer look.” Back came the answer, “No, you tell me; I can’t read it.” I said, “Right, sorry, you don’t know English.” He clarified, “No, I can’t read.”

I stared at him, stunned. Gopal was, at the time, over  fifty years of age. He had just informed me that in all that time, he had never learned to read; he had never read a book, a newspaper, or  even a recipe. He had never sat down to immerse himself in a printed page; he had never traversed those spaces made accessible by reading a book. I considered myself to be possessed of an active imagination but at that moment it failed me; I could not comprehend what such a life could be like. I say this–and thought it–without any condescension; I just did not know what it was like to not read, to be possessed of so much seeming incomprehension.

At that moment, something and someone I considered familiar had become utterly strange; I realized the extent of the gulf that separated my life from Gopal’s; and the extent of my fortunes all over again.   

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