"Write the letters of the alphabet neatly and learn them. Letters make words, just as bricks make homes when joined," I explained patiently to Ramesh, 10, and his sister, Pushpa, 8. "Words are important," I added, "because they help us express."
Ramesh and Pushpa were children of
labourer Ramsharan, who worked on our farm in 1950. I had taken it upon myself to teach them English.
We had received some farmland in a village on the outskirts of Sirsa as compensation for the property we had lost in Pakistan after Partition. I had the responsibility of delivering the first agricultural crop.
For about a year, every day at 4am, I bicycled 6 miles from my family home in Sirsa to the farm.
Between sowing and harvesting (110 to 120 days), I had some free time. I noticed Ramesh and Pushpa going through my books of English and encouraged them to read. Every day after my farming chores finished around 11am, the children would bring their slates and we'd sit on a charpoy under a giant Peepal (sacred fig) tree. Then, for a couple of hours, I would teach them to write from A to Z.
They were unfamiliar with the script, so I would hold their tiny hands in my palm and guide their fingers to draw the letters on the slate. After four months, Ramesh and Pushpa had learnt to write some letters of the alphabet, though they could not remember all 26 in the right order. Teaching them was a laborious process, plus there were daily revisions.
As the word spread about the English lessons, the other farm labourers also started sending their children over to learn the newfangled foreign language. We now were a group of 11 and occupied two charpoys.
Meanwhile, the saplings grew. It was a delight to watch the green plants sway with the breeze under the blue sky. We were enthralled when the threshing and harvesting of the wheat stalks yielded golden mounds of the crop. A third of the entire crop came to us as landowners; and two-third went to Ramsharan and his men as compensation for their labour.
I had enjoyed my foray into farming and learnt some nuances of growing wheat and vegetables such as beans and green chilli. However, I had relished more the process of teaching English and numbers to the 11 children of farm labourers.
I moved into a career in accounting. When I visited Sirsa in 1973 after 23 years, Ramsharan came to meet me. He told me that Ramesh and Pushpa had joined a school after my tutorials. Ramesh now was a government clerk and Pushpa was married to a farmer's son. Her husband is impressed that she can speak some English.
As India celebrates its 64th Republic Day this month, the country's adult literacy is only 74%. This translates into 31.2 crore illiterate Indians, largest uneducated population chunk in the world. Women's literacy is only 65%.
In Indian villages, it's still considered wasteful to educate girls. If women do not achieve full potential, the country will not progress. Educated women build strong and healthy families. My birthday wish for Indian republic is that it achieves 100% literacy by 2025. I am sure Ramesh and Pushpa will support the agenda, wherever they are now.
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