There is a street in Kolkata that I remember visiting when I was a teenager. It’s a street lined with books and books and more books. Piles of books, shelves of books, books as stools and tables. For me, it was a paradise. I remember popping into a few of the book shops gasping in astonishment at their collection; from the best sellers of the day to ancient Sanskrit texts (not the originals, I must add) were available for me to pick up at my will. They were dirt cheap too! It was a reader’s Mecca.
College Street is one of those places that go towards building Kolkata’s complex persona. To walk upon the hallowed pavement is to believe that literacy is West Bengal’s highest priority and biggest love. The problem lies in the fact that I don’t think it is.
I have two maids and a driver, not one of them can read or write in English. They all can read some basic Bengali, and neither of them can fill out an application form for anything. They all can just about sign their names. None of them have studied beyond Class 8, one of my maids was married at 14. Let’s just say to be literate was not a high priority amongst the working class. Why would it be? they don’t need to read to clean the toilets, they certainly don’t need it to drive, not if you know the roads inside out…if you can read a little Bengali you’ll be OK, as the signs are also written in Bangla. But reading here is not essential.
So how do you function without the ability to read? The short answer is, you muddle through with a few moments of embarrassment now and then. You ask your employer to fill out a form for you and you rely on pictures and a game of ‘charades’ when going shopping for items you never would stock in your kitchen cupboard like, baby wipes!
Aspirations are low, or should I say were low. I think the working class want out! They don’t want their children to labour under a class that really are too lazy and too rich to change their own babies’ diapers (me included!). They want their own children to have a stab at self respect! My maid, the other day, told me about her oldest son, how he was so handsome and well turned out, you wouldn’t be able to tell that his parents were labourers. What does that say about her self image? Here, a carpenter, a plumber, even an electrician are in the same position. They can’t read, they get by, with some Bengali ‘nouse’ and ‘voila!’ although you’re grateful you still don’t respect them, not much! Whereas back in the UK, we take literacy for granted, it’s a rarity to find an adult who can’t and then the government are offering so many courses so people can earn the right to say their literate. The government are trying here too…no I mean they’re really trying! The money’s not getting through though. Or in rural Bengal, they don’t know they’re entitled to it!
I’ve checked the literacy rates for males and females in West Bengal, according to the 2011 census (Google is fanstastic!) and the average literacy rate is 77.08% for men and women, with women on 71% literate compared to men, 82% literate. I’m assuming this shows that still, in Bengal, at least, it’s more important to educate the boy!
The figures are up though, if you look at the table. A decade ago, things were dismal. People are realising they don’t need to stay in their socio-economic class forever. Eventually things will get better, I’m hoping.
In the UK the literacy rate is at 99% It’s not right to compare, of course and it could be argued that the UK should have a 100% literacy rate because of it’s tiny population and has had the availability of free education for a much longer time than India, but India, and Bengal is competing on a global scale now. Things need to change faster if India wants to avoid being mocked. What’s the point of a million high-risers when almost a quarter of the population are living in substandard shacks with no running water?
What can I do personally?
Well I can get off my backside and help! I can read and write and I can speak a little Bengali…So, starting from the 26th of this month, the day my daughter goes back to school after the holidays, I’m going out to be useful. It’s all very well sitting in my ivory tower and judging. I need to get my hands dirty. But I’m not being a hypocrite about it, this is for me too. Another step towards working out who I am. Wish me luck!