Monday, January 19, 2009

Illiteracy is a greater poverty than lack of resource to buy food

My father, Nikhil Kumar Das, is perhaps one of the best examples of the theory that education is the only thing that can alleviate a society and civilization from poverty and darkness to prosperity. I believe there's only two classes in the world - educated and uneducated. Everything else comes from that.  An illiterate person belonging to an upper caste is just an outcaste in front of an educated Dalit. In today's world education is perhaps more important than ever. In today's world education is power.
My father was just a refugee - one of the million faceless and nameless entities that kept pouring into India after the partition. The term 'refugee' is perhaps something whose meaning is understood only by them who have been refugees themselves. It's perhaps best understood by a tree which has been uprooted from it's own soil of hundred years and planted somewhere else in a different climate and soil. The tree dies in the new soil. But the refugees don't die easily. They keep on fighting for their survival, just like animals. Anyone who has seen a refugee camp would understand that it's nothing better than a barrack of animals. When the entire struggle is just for the mere survival then all the superior human instincts seem to die. But very strikingly, most of the people, who have been refugees at some point of time, struggle through their lives, put the traumatic past in past and move ahead with great strides. Perhaps the nature puts some more life into their lives and they some how just cease to die, cease to give up. That's the story of most of the refugees. It's this 'refugeeism' that makes them successful. And this success comes mainly from education. When you lose something in life you feel bad. You just keep on thinking of what you've lost. But when you lose everything in life, you don't have anything to feel bad about. You don't have anything to miss. But you have everything to dream of - everything to aspire of. Each and everything that you get in life becomes a prized possession. You understand how precious is even the day's light, a night's calm and the water's life. You don't take anything for granted in life. And it's this zeal to survive, this zeal to achieve or attain even the minutest things in life, that makes you appreciate that education is indeed the only thing that is their wealth.
My father was brought up by his elder sister and brother-in-law in a house with some other twenty people of various ages - all of whom had had a traumatic journey from Bangladesh. My father, aged only seven years, along with his sister of ten years and elder brother of fourteen, set out for the fateful journey from Bangladesh, leaving behind them their parents, their homes, their houses which they never saw ever in their lives. The journey -  that they never knew how painful or ruthless it could be. They had to wait in the queue for seven days just to get the ticket for the ferry that would take them to the nearest railway station from where they would catch the train for India. They just had a few days' ration of puffed rice and jaggery. After reaching the Sealdah station in Calcutta, my father couldn't come out of the train, which was to return to Bangladesh with Muslims from Calcutta. When the train started moving, my uncle would have shouted in panic and my father was just thrown out of the window. He fell on the platform and got crushed under the feet of the rushing people. When he could be finally rescued he had already broken a few bones of his rib - the marks of which are still there. My father's story might not have been the most traumatic one in the house where there were many other people with similar stories to tell.
My father's brother-in-law was a clerk with the Port Commission in Calcutta. His income was for sure not at all sufficient to feed an extended family of 20 people - forget about any luxury or even expensive education. Still, my father could complete his engineering. At every step he did make use of all the benevolence of the people and government. And yes, I should tell very loudly that he achieved everything without any reservation. Whenever I see people arguing that reservation is the only way to uplift the poor or lower caste, I just want people to know of my father. What you need is good schools and good teachers - both of which were available to my father. The key to education is not reservation but the dedication of the teachers, an atmosphere for learning and above all the urge to learn. It really makes me sad that neither of these requirements is satisfied in today's world. The government schools in rural areas are just home ground for creating cadres and most of the teachers are just as irresponsible as the government. So I don't see anything improving in the near future in the status of the poor illiterate people, because they would be still deprived of education.
Despite the daily struggle and the constant strives for survival, my father, like most of the people around, also developed strong cultural qualities. Most of them had good interest in literature and music. All my interest in books came from my father. Here also the teachers played a very critical role in developing these aspects.
Today we are among the upper middle class or might be even the rich class. That's really rags to riches. All this has been possible just by one thing - that's education. Illiteracy is a greater poverty than lack of resource to buy food. I say this because it's perhaps much easy to arrange for resources for the poor people to by buy food, but it's much tougher to make them educated and alleviate their social status. When my father came to India from Bangladesh he was the lowest ladder of society. But now we're among the highest ranks - just because my father got the right education.