How My Grandmother Learnt To Read And Write

This was a trigger enough for granny to start her journey towards literacy but she wanted to do it secretly, not sure what the reason was.

First, my sincere apology to Sudha Murthy ji for tweaking the title of one of her books and using it for my piece, but no other title fit better than the above.

My grandmother Mohan Devi Sethi (maiden name Kesran Devi) was born in 1903 in Khiali village about 3 km from Gujranwala (now in Pakistan).

Education in her times was the rarest of the rare commodity in villages, not just for girls but also for boys. People who valued education sent their sons to schools in nearby towns, but this opportunity was denied to girls.

Her parents were progressive thinkers and wanted their daughter to be literate but there were no schools for girls. Her father was literate in Gurmukhi (Punjabi) and Urdu. He was also fond of teaching. In the evenings after returning from the shop where he sold items of daily use, he would teach the neighbourhood girls. Till late evening, he would be surrounded by little girls enthusiastic to learn how to read and write, a couple of kerosene lamps lighting the room. There was no electricity in the village. He often told my grandmother (his daughter) to join the class but she wasn’t interested. Playing outside was more fun. Veeran, granny’s close friend was a regular to the class, but granny had no motivation to learn.

One morning, granny and her friend Veeran were returning home after taking bath in the village pond as they did every day. There was no water supply in the village houses and people defecated in the fields, and bathed in the ponds. After bath Veeran started reciting Japji Sahib path ( a prayer). Unaware, granny continued talking.

‘Kesran, don’t disturb me, I’m reciting Path,’ Veeran scolded granny.

Granny glared at Veeran. How dare she talk to her rudely? Without saying a word, granny ran off leaving Veeran. At home, she complained to her father. ‘How can she ask me to shut up? It’s only because of you that she can read.’

Her father listened to her patiently and when she was done, he replied calmly. ‘If you also learn to read, one day you can give her tit for tat.’

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This was a trigger enough for granny to start her journey towards literacy but she wanted to do it secretly, not sure what the reason was. Either she didn’t want her parents to know that her friend’s taunt had triggered the change in her, or she wanted to show her worth only after she had learnt something.

After some time, one day when her father was taking out a post card to write a letter to an uncle, granny offered to write for him. He laughed, ‘Do you even know how to write?’ But anyway postcard was given and granny wrote as dictated. Though there were grammatical and spelling errors, the letter conveyed the message. For her parents it was unbelievable but true that their daughter knew how to read and write, so granny dragged them to the rooftop and showed them the walls of the terrace which were scribbled with alphabets in Gurmukhi (Punjabi). In amazement and delight, they stood there gazing at the blackened walls with charcoal. It was on these walls that granny had practiced writing.

After granny had gained enough confidence she decided to read the Guru Granth Sahib (holy book of Sikhs) in the gurdwara. One morning she asked her mother to prepare prasad (wheat flour halwa) for her Charni Lagna ceremony. In Sikh religion, reading the holy granth for the first time is called Charni Lagna.

Her mother rebuked her. It’s a dishonour to the Guru if a person sits down to read the holy book and can’t do it properly. Disappointed, granny went to her father’s shop and asked her father’s younger brother who was manning the shop at that time, to give her some batashas (a sweet candy most commonly used as prasad in temples) to be taken as prasad to the Gurdwara.

Her uncle also chided her sending her away. Not to be discouraged, evading his eyes, granny sneaked into the shop, grabbed a handful of batashas from a gunny bag, hid them in her dupatta and ran off. At the Gurdwara, she placed the batashas in the container for keeping prasad and sat before the holy book for her Charni Lagna ceremony.

The family was stunned when a village woman informed them that she had seen granny reading the Guru Granth Sahib in the Gurdwara. Later she started reading newspapers and books in Punjabi. Her day was not complete without reading the newspaper from first to the last page.

Image source: a still from the film Pinjar

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About the Author

Sujata Rajpal

I gave up my day job as a Corporate Communication & PR professional to become a full-time author. I have been writing for journals for the past many years. Fiction writing is the new addiction. read more...

15 Posts | 52,090 Views

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