Cannot Read and Write

I am an NRI, translated into: no real Indian. I follow Indian cinema in my quest to find only one million original films before humanity as we know it disappears. I will use the term Indian cinema sparingly because I only have access to Hindi films, not Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu, Marathi, Kannada, Gujarati and other languages.

The 1957 film Mother India directed by Mehboob raised issues like illiteracy that are still here with us in the year 2010. Just a month ago, a well-dressed woman of about 33, approached me in a post office.

She wanted me to help her fill in the withdrawal slip because she wanted money from her savings account. I must have a trusting face because she also gave me her identity document (I.D.). I helped her with a heavy heart because somewhere in her life, people will misuse her I.D. or cheat her big time because she cannot read and write

Mother India is about land. Jillo Maa wanted to give Shamu (Raj Kumar), her only son a wonderful wedding. She didn’t have money so she went to Sukhilal the moneylender, played by Kanhaiyalal. He gave her 500 rupees, using 20 acres of her land as collateral. Sukhilala took three parts of the crop as interest to the loan. She remained with one part.

It turns out that they had agreed on three parts for her and one part for the money lender. She lost the case, because Sukhilal showed the Village Council the document with her thumb. She couldn’t read and write.

“I believe in the spoken word not what is written,” she said. “Didn’t I say one part of the crop will be yours and three ours?” She died leaving her son Shamu and his wife Radha (Nargis) and their sons to service the loan. Nature made things worse. It was either prolonged drought or vicious floods. Shamu lost his arms working a rocky piece of land which was not part of the loan. He couldn’t bear to see his helplessness and left his family never to return. Radha lost her third son because floods had washed all they could eat.

Birju (Sunil Dutt) one of her sons grew up watching her mother give three parts of the crop to Sukhilal. He refused when he was an adult. He remembered how the money lender took everything when weather conditions prevented his mother from delivering the crop. He took the buffalos, pots and even his mother’s bangles. Birju could never forgive him for the bangles.

Birju demanded to see Sukhilal’s books because he couldn’t understand how his mother was still paying the interest after 20 years. She hadn’t started repaying the capital 500 rupees. The money lender brought the books but Birju couldn’t read. He asked his mother. She couldn’t read either. Nobody in the village could read except Sukhilal the money lender. Birju killed him in the end.

“I’ve learnt your knowledge. With this knowledge you took three parts of our crop as interest and gave us poverty. With this knowledge you took away our fields, our oxen. You took away our father and tied black threads in my mother’s wrists. One acre of land, for a kilogram of rice,” said Birju before he killed him.

There are millions of people like Birju and his mother Radha who cannot read and write. The woman who approached me at the post office is not the first one. I have helped two people on different occasions in banks. Both of them did not know how to fill in withdrawal slips.

One of them had been sent by a friend, to deposit money in his account. I filled in the withdrawal slip for him and he went to the teller. I waited for him to make sure that everything was alright. He came back and told me that the bank computer had rejected the transaction because of the wrong account number.

I asked him if his friend had given him the correct account number. He showed me the piece of paper again. I looked at it and compared it to what I had written in the withdrawal slip. I had missed a digit. I filled in a fresh one. He went back to the teller and the bank accepted the deposit. He thanked me and I thanked him, for forgiving me for my mistake.

Pensioners in South Africa are particularly vulnerable, especially when taking out money from bank machines. They can be robbed if they ask strangers to help them follow instructions from the machine. All banks have some kind of warning that I should not ask strangers for help. I know that because I can read English. The majority does not because they live, love, work and play in African languages.

Banks tried to solve the problem by having security men and women to help people who cannot read and write. They usually turn their back when the bank client punches the secret code, but it is still dangerous. Some pensioners or illiterate people give the secret code to their grandchildren, who rob them in return.

The inability to read and write robs people of their humanity, because it is assumed that they are stupid. It is even worse if they cannot read in money languages such as English, French, Spanish, Arabic etc.

A person is born in his language, Zulu for example but his identity document, his marriage certificate, baptismal certificates for his children, his bank statement, his electricity bill, his employment, everything is in English. These make him feel insecure because he is dependent on other people, and therefore less of a human being.

Nonqaba waka Msimang is the author of Sweetness The Novel.


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