Rant 1: Women and Education

Who am I to change a whole lifestyle or even raise consciousness when I may be disrupting a system that works and I won’t be there to help pick up the pieces?

In early February, getting down at the amazingly grimy and ancient-looking station in the capital of one of India’s largest states, smack in the middle of the country, we found ourselves at the wrong spot for a driver to find us according to the state tourism department arrangements. Mobiles, however, (cell phones to us U.S. diehards), do reign supreme and we quickly managed to negotiate the crowds, confusion, cantankerous companion (self) and get moving in a Tata SUV. And no, this is not about tourism in exotic locales, cultural insights of a returning non-resident-Indian, or even about technology progress anywhere. It is about the amazing fact we discovered within first day of our travel. Six months later on a hot dry day to rival any parched Indian city, smack in the middle of one of the largest central U.S. states, I discovered the same amazing fact. In the one instance, I never spoke to the woman in question. All my knowledge about her came from her husband, our driver for the tour. In the second, I spoke almost exclusively to the woman at a social event, but was introduced to her husband briefly. These instances connect because they roused the feeling so valued in our culture today: my passion. Hearing their experiences brought forth an impassioned response, which I realize, never rests and always causes social discomfort.

The tourism driver, who turned out not to be a government employee but a sub-contractor’s staff member, was illiterate. Over the subsequent two weeks, we heard enough of his life history to know that he came from a poverty-ridden background, stayed away from nefarious activities by some good instinct and the grace of God, married a woman above his level, coming from a propertied family and educated to the fifth grade. He was current with the local politics and reforms by the chief minister, had the street smarts to drive tourists, develop a building contract business, coerce a seasoned tour guide to let him pose in banned spots for unique photos on his mobile to send his wife, and get the men in our group to share the joys of his philosophy: miyan paan khaa lo, sab theek ho jayega, which translates as “Buddy, eat a paan (betel leaf and tobacco special), and all will be well.” For my friend and me, we were stuck back at “illiterate.” He confessed that he lost a lot of money on that building contract venture because his customer had him sign papers that he could not read and of course, the contract bound him six ways from Sunday. Hence his stint as a “driver.”

But you’re so young still! And smart! It won’t take very long for you to learn. You’re sending your children to school, your wife can help you!

And there is the catch.

He had so often demonstrated to her that he could manage knowledge and information that if he told her that he couldn’t read, she would not be able to believe him. And in what was clearly a rare confessional moment he said that he would be ashamed to ask for her help. So neither to his wife, nor children, nor a supportive father-in-law, and certainly not to an employer could he reveal this lack. As transients, we could be relied upon to cope (we did most of the navigating in a completely confusing part of the country) and yet move on. Confessions to strangers are always easier.

I was impassioned to the point of buying him first level language books and sitting with him every night to get him going. During the trip, though, his attitude, or I should perhaps say, his approach or world view, led him to talk much more about his numerous talents, painter, musician, and savvy current affairs commentator. And I came to the same realization as decades earlier when my uncle-in-law, a radical humanist, wanted me to speak to Indian women now that I had lived a whole year in America.

Who am I to change a whole lifestyle or even raise consciousness when I may be disrupting a system that works and I won’t be there to help pick up the pieces?

It does go to pieces. The raising consciousness movement in the seventies was filled with relationship debris left behind. I was there. I have seen it.

This summer I am reminded of that driver and his wife.

We drove nearly seventy miles to attend the gathering. What’s a little distance between friends. We were in the U.S. of A, in a large central state prone to aridity much like many parts of India.

She was dressed in a classic Gujarati style bandhani (tie-dyed sari) in reds and turmeric yellow. Her earrings, gold dangles with a dome-like post at the ear, pulled down her elongated lobes. She wore round glasses and her eyes sparkled in a face, which showed the ravages from the brilliant heat of India’s west coast in wrinkled skin and a tan that had never faded. She smiled, joined her hands, and greeted me with a Jai Shri Krishna, as I went past as if we had met before. Some time later, I found myself drawn to sit on the floor next to the puja (worship ceremony) setup in our host’s drawing room and chat with her.

Children milled around the open kitchen, men gathered in groups discussing the latest sports statistics and the possible end of the Gulf spill, the inevitable political debates flourished. Endless supplies of food kept coming. Women chatted with the hostess and took innumerable aluminum-foil pans piled high down to the basement where a larger meal was yet to be served.

I was to discover that she came from southern Gujarat, an area famous for fabulous food and amazing seafarers and had lived in North America for more than three decades; Canada and then the U.S. We fell into conversation easily. We talked of children, grandchildren, living in America, small talk that is the lifeblood of society and talk that I have to work hard to generate. But there was aliveness in her eyes and an eagerness to talk that drew me out. In an unexpectedly short time, I found myself telling her about an Economist article about “battling grannies” though I could see that her world was very remote to the whole universe of science, technology, and cogent analysis in the twenty-first century. As I struggled to give some of the ideas, flapping somewhat confusedly between Gujarati, Hindi, and English because two other women were listening, she absorbed my words, rushing to complete my phrases to show she understood, her eyes alight, totally animated. She loved my proposed conclusion to the sense of the article: let there be no mistake, grandpas were irrelevant but grannies were essential to human survival.

As we rose for dinner, I found that she could not speak English, possibly didn’t do much more than write her name in Gujarati. Yet she had run her husband’s business in French-speaking Montreal and then helped him move to the U.S. and run a business again. This time, my passion spoke up without constraint.

Why don’t you know English? You can do it! No why should I? My husband takes care of all that. But you’ve lived here for so long. Ask your child. You have to learn! I insist.

She shrugged. She found her husband already seated with a full plate in the buffet area. She introduced me saying with a little laugh that I had bugged her about speaking English. I said indeed he needed to make sure she could. He instead asked where I was from and when I mentioned the region, he immediately produced a humorous statement in the specialized language and accent from that part of Gujarat. Two or three times during the course of the evening, he came up and tried to demonstrate his fluency in Hindi, Gujarati, English, and even French.

When we left, the illiterate driver turned up in my memory. He too had boasted of his accomplishments, one of which was to marry a literate wife. But he was disinclined to admit limitations or do anything to change them. I had wondered about his wife but there was nothing to be done for him or her. How would he have reacted to a suggestion to let her finish her schooling? This transplanted Gujarati was very much like him. He got by, didn’t he? He’d raised children, supported a family, and made his way in a foreign land successfully. He was a poster boy for the American immigrant. He took no help from strangers but rose in the world. Some random woman comes asking about getting his wife to learn and grow, he’d show her how accomplished he was. He didn’t need help from anybody.

So the question returns.

Who am I to change a whole lifestyle or even raise consciousness when I may be disrupting a system that works and I won’t be there to help pick up the pieces?

I know enough about the pieces here. She is a strong woman. She will take care of the pieces if things do fall to pieces. What’s more, I had a sense. They won’t fall to pieces. In my farewell I said

Don’t forget, I’ll check on you. Learn English.

In nearly a dozen years of teaching the freshman essay, the insight that saved me came from a friend, a woman, of course, diminutive redhead dynamo. The conclusion that most of these essays arrive at need to be the thesis, she pointed out. That’s the textbook requirement. We need to get the students to understand that they have to work through the idea, understand it, and then stand it on its head for the essay reader. The words are mine. The wisdom is hers.

Alas, we never could determine whether the students ever “got it.”

There are conclusions to be derived here. Get Them.

About meenapoetartisan

word lover, meaning maniac, bilingual with metalingual interests, sometimes potter, poet, playwright, writer, mover to music, always a pontificator.
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