She comes in, sharp at 9.30, pale, lanky and shivering from the cold that has begun to build up over the past few days. I immediately chide her, “You’ll never wear a sweater to work, will you?” as I hand her her usual cup of tea.

“Forget it, Didi. Where am I supposed to keep the sweater when it starts getting warm again? So I don’t wear one.”

“But you’ll catch a cold this way…”

“Who cares. Do me a favour…” and she brings her cell-phone to me. “Tell me what’s written in this text?”

I read her some promotional text from some company. And I remind her for the umpteenth time that she ought to at least learn the alphabet. Her reply is always the same “Who cares?” And she forthwith busies herself with her work around the house.

This is the daily morning conversation I have with my house help. Over her education, or rather, the lack thereof. She is one of two girls in a five-sibling household. She belongs to a less-fortunate background and hails from a backward region in India. Resultantly, her parents never stressed that she or her sister ever finish their education. She has studied only till the 7th grade, her sister has studied less than that. And the sum total of their education has now reduced to an ability to scrawl their name on forms and bank cheques, should the need ever arise. But for all purposes, they are, what we call illiterates in India – angootha chaap.

Remember that age-old advertisement issued by the Indian Government that used to air on DD  – Poorab se surya uga, where an old man teaches a child from an unfortunate background how to start writing his name? When I was a child I used to wonder would I be able to know it all if I only learn how to write my name? Obviously not, as I later realized. The advertisement was a great initiative by the Rashtriya Saksharta Mission. But unfortunately, education is still underrated in our country.

Learning how to write one’s name is not an education, because one can learn how to write their name purely by memory, without learning the alphabet at all.

In fact, learning the alphabet itself is not an education, because the alphabets are of no use if one does not know how to string them into words and sentences, or read them from a book or a placard. 

Like my Help. She knows the English and Marathi numbers, but does not know basic mathematical problems. She knows the Marathi alphabet, but does not know how to read or write them. She knows how to write her name, but does not know any other word consisting of the same alphabets constituting her name. She does not even know how to tell the time! She comes to me for help with everything related to reading or writing. I fill out her bank forms. I inform her of her child’s scheduled parent-teacher meetings. I tell her when she’s supposed to pay for her loans. I have even instructed her on which medication she should take at what time, all because her ‘education’ amounts to nothing. And the irony is that she has admitted her child in a private school where English is the medium of instruction.

I often ask her, “Just what did you learn till the 7th grade if you don’t even know how to tell the time?” She only shrugs in response.

You may say that it’s her fault entirely for not using her education and I would say you are not wrong. But her circumstances, coupled with the prevalent social outlook on girls her age and of her background does not leave her a choice in the matter. Her parents thought it wiser for her to be married off at the young age of 15 (yes, unfortunately, child marriages still happen in India),  rather than letting her continue her schooling. They thought she would do better being a housewife and a house help, than being a teacher at a primary school. Because teachers at primary schools have liberated ideas and no one in their society needs a woman with a smart mouth.

She’s not the only one. There are countless others in India like her. There are countless men too, who know nothing beyond writing their names. Her brother is no less. He’s cleared his matriculate but does not know how to write a letter in Marathi or Hindi. I wrote his resume for a job application for a clerk’s position because though he can read somewhat, he cannot write at all. Needless to say, he’s still jobless.

Education is still considered a necessary evil in our country not a pure necessity, like clothing and housing. Forget about her class, I still come across women my age and from my background who have only cleared their matriculate and have forgotten much of what they learnt at school because they were expected to be home-bodies. No, this isn’t about how women should be allowed to work; this is about how women should be encouraged to at least get a graduate’s degree, because even if a woman is to be a stay-at-home mom, she ought to  be able to teach her own kids, and not ship them off to tuition classes, which, unfortunately, has become the norm these days in India. There is a parallel education system running, no, thriving in our country, all because there are so-called educated parents at home who are unable to teach anything to their children. What use is such an education? What use are such advertisements on education when the concept itself is reduced to learning by rote? An education does not end at school or college. It begins from there and is a life-long affair. But unfortunately, for many of us, their education ends when they receive their graduate degrees.

There are free schools with free books and free meals but their’s still no zeal in the lower echelons of our society to study. Why? Because earning the bread takes a precedence over receiving an education. Because these free sops are taken for granted rather than being grateful for. Because our society itself permeates an outlook that its okay to be an ‘educated’ angootha chaap. What India needs is not just education being thrust upon the masses, but education being made a mandatory requirement for every walk of life, even if one wants to be a house-help. What India needs is a change in the outlook of the masses, right down to the grassroots, that being educated means reading, writing and speaking at least one language well enough, apart from being able to do basic mathematical calculations. What India needs is a cultural revolution that an education does not end at marriage or being a mother.

What we need is to tell ourselves that its NOT okay to be ‘educated’ angootha chaaps.

She marvels at my 4 years old’s ability to already recognize the alphabet from a chart I’ve hung at home, her ability to use complicated words and count from 1 to 30 and backwards. I tell her again, like I always do, “Sit with me for at least half an hour each day and learn the alphabet. Slowly, you’ll come to learn how to read and write too. I’ll teach it all to you. I’ll even enrol you in night school, if you want.”

She only shrugs it off and reiterates, “Who cares? At my age what am I going to do with reading or writing?” And she busies herself with the sweeping again.

She only’s 26.

(Note: ANGOOTHA CHAAPS – Illiterate and uneducated)


  1. A sad reality seen across the length and breadth of our country, inspite of the well-thought-of schemes and programmes of various governments!
    Nicely articulated, Pradita.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s true Rajanandini. It’s a tragedy really that all of our educated masses too can’t claim to be educated enough, then how are the poor and illiterate supposed to get better. Thank you for your compliment 🙂


  2. Interesting article. To me, One of the most fundamental defect that I see in our education system is our obsession over this magical language “English”. The reason behind this massive push for English is our belief that it is a quick-fix solution. A magic mantra. An only way out. English, it seems, will close the skill gap, offer employment opportunities and set the country on its path to greatness. Yet, across the world, and in India, there is a consensus among educators, educationists and linguists that children learn most effectively in their mother tongues. It’s a no-brainer. Using a language that children are familiar with eases their transition from home to school. They are more easily engaged in the classroom because they understand what is going on, and are able to link it to their everyday lives. This helps them easily develop literacy skills and general cognitive abilities. Right now, all Indian children are forced into a school system designed for a tiny proportion of the population that has an inter-generational education advantage. What they need instead is an education system that helps them acquire language skills early on, and learn in a manner that will allow them to close the gap with the educationally advantaged. English is proposed as a corrective against existing social disadvantages. But it is more likely to accentuate these disadvantages. The obsession with English determinedly ignores what is impossible to ignore: A majority of Indian children leave school without the basics of old-fashioned reading, writing and arithmetic, in any language. Learning a language, any language, is about gaining a skill that’s necessary to gain an education. It’s not an education in itself. Moreover, done badly, it deprives a child of proper education.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Neal. Thank you so much for your detailed comment on this article and lets shake hands on the points you’ve raised – English makes education tougher for our children. From the start itself we tell our children that the would be at a disadvantage if they do not learn the language thus creating a picture where using the vernacular language is considered vile. It not only confuses them, it also debases our vernacular languages.

      Having agreed with you on that point, I’d like to add that the problem doesn’t however stop at our emphasis on a foreign language. It’s one of the issues, like you said, but not the fundamental one, in my opinion. The fundamental problem with our nation is the attitude towards learning which we equate with rote learning. Even up till the 12th standard we spoon feed answers to our students, making them lazy, dependent on text books and averse to adversity and research. Education must provoke that zeal to find out the answers by yourself, and our current system doesn’t appreciate that yet. Because education is reduced to rote learning, it has become monotonous for most students and parents. Add to that the pressures of competition that doesn’t allow a student the chance to explore for alternative answers. What do you get? Clones. It’s no wonder no one likes being educated. The lower classes have a prime excuse – money. But what do the middle income and rich folks have for an excuse except apathy?


Your valuable feedback please...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.