An education in progress

Illus: for TH_sreejith r.kumar

Mother and son were engaged in an unspoken dialogue over the open books that lay in front of them on the dining table. The mother tugged at the buttons of her sweater, her forehead crinkled. The son’s forehead crinkled even more as he pointed at a book and pushed a pencil to her hand. She shook her head and placed the pencil on the edge of the table, away from his reach. He sighed and folded his hands. It would be 30 more minutes of the Sunday morning ritual of denial and perseverance.

I had a clear view of the pair from the balcony. I was taking my time with my milky ginger tea. It was cold that morning; my night clothes proved to be inadequate. Yet, I was not keen on retrieving my shawl from the bedroom. When the weekly ritual was on, I made myself invisible to them.

After a few more minutes, the miracle happened. My mother-in-law picked up the pencil and scrawled in the Telugu alphabet book. My husband unfolded his hands and smiled widely. He had finally convinced his mother to pick up the pencil and write. Her head was bent over the book. I heaved, relieved. Weeks of persistence, and he had succeeded.

Soon, domestic duties would overweigh and she would leave, only to be back next Sunday for the alphabet classes with her son. Every Sunday morning, he pursued her to come over for a couple of hours. He had bought the best primary alphabet-writing books for her. Him, a graduate from a top B-school who left his lucrative job, cracked the tough UPSC examination and became a bureaucrat. Her, illiterate mother of five from rural Telangana.

He had tried to conduct the alphabet sessions at her place, but she always had excuses. She had lunch to prepare for guests, stand guard at the terrace for drying papadams or attend to a sick neighbour. She resisted but he had persisted.

Back in the day, in her society, children did not attend schools, they were expected to help parents in the field. An early marriage into an equally modest background turned her into a bustling housewife and caregiver. Husband and wife, realising the benefits of the education they had missed out on, ensured their children got the best and moved to a city.

In their younger and enthusiastic days, the children had insisted their mother learn the Telugu alphabet. After school my husband and his siblings assisted her with the household chores, so she could manage time to study before dinner. She was evasive. Now he had put his foot down, she had to learn how to write her name and read sentences from newspapers.

During the ritual, I made myself scarce or fiddled with obscure things. I couldn’t meet her eyes afterwards, as if I was guilty of a good education. In my family and peer circle, no one was illiterate; a master’s was the minimum. In my initial days with the new family, I had struggled to gauge her lack of interest in education.

My husband had discussed his plans with me. He had joked that I should be his student too, and learn Telugu. I’m from Odisha, and English is our only common language. He had hinted many a time that he would like me to learn Telugu, but I had resisted. My in-laws couldn’t manage even broken Hindi or English. Our interactions were largely non-verbal.

It wasn’t a bad idea, he said, and would encourage Amma. But in my mind’s eye, I imagined her being uneasy. In truth, it was I who was uneasy and defiant. It would be awkward for her to learn to write in the presence of her lawyer daughter-in-law, I argued, she will feel judged. Maybe it wouldn’t bother her at all, maybe it was all in my head, he reasoned. After a few weeks, he gave up.

My cup was empty. I gazed out at the balcony. In the compound, Lipi, the neighbour’s toddler, was trotting behind her Golden Retriever puppy. Dressed in a yellow onesie, her curly hair glinted in the morning sun. She was yelping at the puppy in her sing-song baby voice to come to her. The pup was in no mood, he was yapping in circles, drunk with the freedom. They stopped to catch a breath. It was their Sunday morning ritual. In a few minutes, the pup would run to her and nestle cosily in her lap for a warm rub, while she cooed to him all her secrets.

I looked towards the mother and son. She was dutifully bent over with the pencil in her hand. He had his palm around hers. It was time for me to meet my Lipi, just as my mother-in-law had. I had resisted for too long and unnecessarily. With one last look at the clearing in the compound below, I stood up. Sure enough, the pup had come to Lipi.

I decided to approach the dining table. She smiled at me as I sat across her shakily. I held up a pencil and the alphabet book, ‘Teach me too.’