Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A ‘Literacy Day’ True Story

September 8 is International Literacy Day. And I’m able to write this and you’re able to read this because someone thought it was necessary to make you and me literate.

According to a UNESCO list of literacy rates, 146 countries have better adult literacy rates than India, with its score of 60%. Clearly, the way to improve adult literacy is to go about getting our children literate. And that is where the challenge is, for there seem to be so many factors that help deny basic education to our children---poverty, casteism, infrastructure. Add to this the fact that a huge mass of adults do not have the conviction that education and literacy are necessary tools for the development of our children.

On this International Literacy Day, I’d like to share a story. A true story.

Many years back, a woman died in a hospital leaving behind a three-year old child named Saraswathi. The hospital handed over the child to Anatha Shishu Sevashram, an orphanage in Wilson Garden, Bangalore. Ms. Parvathamma Hirematt, who founded the institution in 1942, sent Saraswathi to school. When she was in Class 4, Saraswathi lost her eyesight following a smallpox attack.

Saraswathi, providentially named after the Hindu Goddess of Knowledge, continued her schooling at Jayanagar Blind School, finished her degree at B.E.S College, and earned an MA in Political Science from Mysore University. She was a lecturer in B.E.S. College for 11 years. But what inspires me is not that a blind girl attained these heights of literacy.

When Parvathamma passed away, Saraswathi took up the running of the orphanage. Since 1992, Sarawathi and her husband have been maintaining it. They do all the cooking, with the help of a few senior students. Today, she tends to 60 children, aged between 4 and 18. Several of her ‘children’ have finished their studies and have been married into good families.

I’m privy to this story because of something that started as a little idea. My husband’s colleagues decided that their company should donate whatever they could to charity each year. My humble contribution was a set of books from Pratham Books. (I had just signed up for the 7-day challenge organized by Joy of Giving. Friends and family think I must be the stingiest ‘donor’, for our books cost just Rs.25 or less). Some days back, Saraswathi Bhat---blind, extremely busy, unacquainted to me---called me up. “Thanks for the books! Some people from your husband’s office just came in and donated many things in cash and kind to our ashram, but I was so happy to get books for our children! They are going to be delighted.”

Literacy is not just about learning to read, write, comprehend and speak, it is also about spreading the worth of these skills, the joy of using these skills. If you believe in this, do spend five minutes today and every other day possible to spread the joy of reading. Talk to a street child. Help her ‘read’ a traffic sign. Show her a newspaper and read out the cartoon strip. Point out a school that she could go to. And do let us know what you did to inspire a child to become literate.Let's spread the joy of doing our bit....
(Illustration by Henu, for a forthcoming title from Pratham Books.)

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