A Field Report on Self Study Literacy

by Tom Veatch

TDLR Introduction

 TomVeatch.com /
  read (This project) :
    printable PDF
    A Story, a Trip Report(1/24)
    Explanation for Linguists
    What is to be done?
    Validation Quiz #1
    First Try (Tamil, 2002)
    Devanagari from IPA

How powerful is ignorance?

Can I even imagine not knowing my letters?

No sign indicates its directions: I am lost, blind also to history, culture and public life. Can I even escape from the literate? They can say anything, and say, it is written! You are subject to those who directly bargain your pay and conditions; what escape, what recourse? You become a slave in fact if not in law: law which anyway you cannot read and have no access to. Your grandparents and parents were bound; your children and grandchildren shall be bound, to these who live from your cheap labor, who may not care if you starve.

I see them on the street, they are there, I just opened my eyes, now I see them. Being so poor these bright-eyed people are dusty, they cannot pay for frequent laundry service, or hot showers. People glance over them and look away. Boy, you represent a problem I cannot solve. His mother, touching fingers to mouth, hungry, hungry. I too look away. Do you think these people don’t want to read? People have said to me, they won’t care about reading, they won’t see any benefit. Really?!

Sunday 1/28/2024, 4:30am, finished editing v0.3 read/index.php, I’m beyond beat but it’s necessary. 9am awake. 10 out. 11 arrived at Wasim's shop for my power press die which happily fits in my luggage! 12:30 out. 1:30 arrived Pawan’s Boutique for the tailoring: early, go eat. 2:30 out.

There is some time, barely time. Search out a Sunday internet printer / copier, 20 to look up, 3rd one to try; he does respond; and he is open! 3:30 Arrive Sonu’s PhotoStat in Mehrauli. 3:45pm, I made the hand corrections and 200 copies for INR550: under 4 cents per copy!

Leaving Sonu's, there sits Ved Kaur, gramma in a shawl in a chair sitting in the gali behind her walker, allows me to approach. I say, with this you can learn to read, she says, Do you know how old I am? 98 years old she says. A beauty. Okay, the direct approach fails. I say, बच्चों को सिखाने के लिये है. Her बच्चों and grand-बच्चों read fine, she says. That’s not much better, I have aimed too high in the socioeconomic layer cake. मगर आप तो किसी illiterate people ko jaantii hae na jii, in the villages or out in the mountains. She agrees that such people exist, ekdum non-literate, she doesn’t swat that down. I give her 5 copies, "Please show the unliterate people, with mobile go to that QR code, without mobile give the paper. Give it to the mothers." She keeps the paper in her hand.

We hobble to the street, all levels going past. The cars, trucks, three-wheelers rushing past with their natural honking turbulence, richer, likely more literate. The poorer people moved at my footspeed, walking or heavily pushing delivery tricycles with mostly steel bars for delivery on the deck.

I stand beside the commuting flow, by poverty choosing my targets: those who might value a path to literacy for themselves and their families. By poverty: vehicle, clothing, size, skin color; I step out paper forward, the heavy trikes slowing still pass me, so I run with them: "This take, keep, at ghar please look, it is for teaching [Hindi: “teach” = “cause to read”] the kids." They look with understanding, agreement, appreciation; they all keep it carefully. Later when they are go the other way again, I see they have it tucked away. Some but very few brush me off like I want something from them. All are polite. More thoughtful than smiling. It takes a minute to take it in.

With an opening, if there is any moment I rush on: "See this, it’s your head, right?" They nod, always. Easy to see. See this, finger on the arrow on the drawing, agar you do this, mouth opens na? With aavaaz (voice) what comes out? I open my mouth. They say, I say, we say, "aaah". Right! That’s “a”! Did I teach you, or did you look at the drawing and figure it out yourself?! If they pause, I go for [u], and chhotawaala [u] and lambawaala [u:], maybe I do the nose noise and the lips closed, [m]. Enough, they have the idea. Hard work hogaa, attention give is wanted. But what is asambhav absolutely impossible yesterday, today it is sambhav, the door is not locked, it is cracked, it is possible.

First guy holds the paper upside down. I realized I have found an instant, perfect test of complete and total illiteracy -- in Roman letters. He is not the last to do so. Guys at the airport, pakka grown ass men, some of them hold it upside down. I talk and turn it around, here is your head, right? …

Ved Kaur's gali ends at the main sadak, which is four-plus lanes of Vasant Kunj Road, divided by a fence. I spent less than an hour giving out 130 copies. Standing and waiting at most a minute in front of precentenary grandma Ved Kaur, who looks on in approval. Stepping forward, running with the trikes, waiting, looking for the working men, the matriarchs, I come back to Ved and I say, it’s working. Yeh chal rahaa.

If I had gone down to the gap in the island where everyone jumps between the fences to cross the street, mostly those are the poor and many are the poor mothers with their children. That would have been a high volume, target rich environment, so to speak. But I’m on my way to the airport. I’m not dragging the luggage over there. Randomly this is a perfect spot, on a slow straight, the passersby are making no quick decisions that would distract from this paper thrust at them. Not too quickly do they come, but it is a land office business; they come. Some drive the three wheeled delivery trucks, I look the wrong way and one goes past before I know it.

This is a great place, a perfect place; these are working solid people about their business, dirt poor yes but working and different from the underpass beggar class for whom I am their business, food source, and predatory target, and their business is not to be open about learning or literacy. The guy at the taxi driver side window demanding the purchase of his plastic somethings has his own work; he says, what do I need with literacy, buy this! Now I am standing here by Grandma Kaur, shawl over head, curled over the bottom of her face, inscrutable, but witnessing a positive development. So glad we met.

The fourth or eighth I gave it to were a pair of middle aged men, maybe 35-40, friends walking somewhere, 5’3”, dark, clothes pakka but dusty. Physical size suggests childhood (mal)nutrition, and the limited resources that go with illiteracy. Small — only in size — thoughtful, bright-eyed men. They kept asking. This is for money? How do you make money? Where is the money? Fourth time, they were persuaded. Folded, carefully, into pocket. They shake my hand. Head woggle: I accept you. Better yet, a sense of great personal and emotional significance.

Another, better dressed guy grabs me again, pulls over what seems like a random car, and demands the same explanation for his friends. He's happy. Not happy exactly; quite serious; they are all wrapping minds around it; must wait and see if this is real; am I permitted to hope? It’s not the smile of happy social encounter; it’s the wheels turning inside on something significant, possibly great, life changing, commitment demanding, that will be great unbelievable goodness. It’s presence with not maybe the Lord but something up there. Me too. I myself am putting myself in their shoes and the total friction of life illiterate, with the contrast I’m feeling Awe.

After fifteen minutes, some guy comes from where a recipient had gone and asks me for his own. Maybe because he wanted it, maybe because the paagal gora is giving out stuff so he wanted some free stuff too. I wanted to believe he talked to someone who got one and wanted his own. I thought, more than working, it might be exploding.

I had to go.

But it doesn't stop! 20 go to Mohammad Haneef, my taxi driver, who promises to give it only where it is needed. Ten at the taxiwallah line at the airport. Six to the airport wheelchair pushers at their sitting room. One to a janitor sweeping in the international check in arena. One to the X-ray security manager, army uniform, who pulled Wasim's 10kg mold out of line and made me check it through, sending it back to JAL for me; he was nice actually. One to the customs officer who said, I’ve been stamping passports for three years and I’ve never talked to a foreigner with your Hindi fluency. I said thanks but give that paper to everyone. One to the Hajji who couldn’t read the numbers for his gate: सात vs the sign Gates 1-29. To everyone I say, you have become a teacher; teach the children, teach Jo bhi unlettered ho, give to everyone.

I asked someone, if I gave it to cops, would they give it out? No. That’s what I thought. Exactly that at the Ashtabuja temple of original Durga, The Mother Goddess. The nice cop over chai actually said, No, don’t give it, this kid, Karan, his parents don’t want him to read. Meaning, the cop himself doesn’t want the unpards to learn to read. Pitaji suggested, it upsets the local cheap labor market, for that reason. I asked Mohammad Haneef, would Army give it? Yes. Maybe the army.

A fire is lighting; this is a fire. Lots of well dressed young men at the airport are unpard, one holds the paper upside down, listens with great attention. Keeping it safe, he will spend time with it later, as long as it can keep teaching him. He takes it.

But me, I am really taking it — to heart. I feel like a melting crazy old man, I am crying, just that this is what it is. What it actually is. And for so many, for millions, a biliion maybe more. it’s not only the number, it’s the significance. Do you see? Do you see yet? These are the unpards but also the unseen. No one sees; all helpless, "we are just trying to survive, mister, what can I do".

I have always seen, since in 1982 at Muktananda’s celebration in Mumbai I wandered penniless off to the beach suddenly surrounded by a crowd of penniless beggar children, such poverty and desperation! I could do nothing, but I saw, and I was in tears then, but I said to myself, Some day, I’m going to do something for these children.

The test is pretty clear when trying to explain, they don’t know the phonetic meaning of [a] for damn sure because they don’t Lead but they Follow when given enough information that a literate person would say the sound, after all the letter is right there; the diagnostic clues are subtle but decisive. 30% unpard in Delhi is not unlikely despite the many who say No, this is bekaar, in Delhi Everyone can read; despite the pretty check in lady who denies even knowing any illiterate people. Like I’m crazy. She has made a life looking up, associating up, being pretty, not looking down. Never look down.

Despite the Great One, Labov himself, who declared this idea useless, because in the US the so-called literacy problem is after 3rd or 5th grade when English spelling gets complicated and the vocabulary literary and the social pressures of America's caste system begin to kick in. In the US we have our problems but we think everyone does know their letters; we have universal mandatory public education, and it works up to a point, we think. But in Delhi they hold the paper upside down, and ask at the giant Gate #1 sign if they are at Gate #7 yet. In Nepal they have 64 languages never written down. You could write your unwritten language down, with the IPA, if you knew the IPA. So please, can we please? ignore all the despites, go forward in spite of despites. Give to the mothers, they will make sure it is used. Just give it.

The airport fluorescents blur. Tears are on my cheeks.

I have much to do. I need IPA to Devanagari for the Hindu lipiwaalas, I need IPA to Urdu so the Hajjis changing clothes to white sheets in the airport but after security and duty free, so they can accept that this is for them too. The graphics still suck. But there is something already that gives the idea. Something natural, real, accessible, door opening for the poorest, this gariib admi or aurat these gariib बच्चे, बस तो something. I have done something. I’m doing it. I’ll do it.

Let’s do this.



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Created, February 1, 2024