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How I taught my Grandmother to Read – Sudha Murthy

Sudha Murthy recounts one of her childhood experiences when her grandmother wanted to learn alphabets. Sudha was still a girl and she lived in her village home, a big home in Karnataka. It was 1950s, a time without television-serials and movies in India. There was a popular Kannada magazine in circulation during this time. Karma Veera. People, especially elders, took ardent (passionate) interest in its stories and novels. One of the novels was Kaashi Yatre, written by Triveni. Published as a serial-novel, every week, this novel featured an old woman who had been preparing a long pilgrimage (journey to a holy place) to Kaashi (Varanasi) to meet Lord Vishweshwara. It was her only dream. But suddenly this old woman abandons her dream and sacrifices her hard-earned money to get an orphan girl married. She did so because she thought helping the poor was pleasing gods, more important than any pilgrimage.

Questions & Answers
  1. What made Triveni a popular writer in Kannada literature? (Textual Question)
    Triveni was an amazingly talented writer of stories in Kannada literature. Her stories discussed the very complex psychological problems of the simple people, especially women, of Karnataka. Because she wrote stories that dealt with the very simple people and because these simple people constituted the majority of the Kannada population of that time, Triveni became a known writer of her time.
  2. What is Kashi Yatre?
    Kashi Yatre is a novel written by Kannada writer Triveni. It was first published in a Kannada weekly Karma Veera as a serial novel. Like her other novels, Kashi Yatre too dealt with the complex psychological problems of two people – an old lady and an orphan girl. The plot of the novel develops with the old woman’s ardent desire to go on a pilgrimage to Kashi, a holy city in India and her struggles to collect money for it. The novel ends with the old woman’s giving away her hard-earned money to help an orphan girl get married. Later the novel was published as a book.
  3. Why did the old lady in Kashi Yatre give away her savings to the orphan girl?”
    The old lady, the protagonist of the novel, had for long cherished a pilgrim journey to Varanasi, the holy city of temples to worship Lord Vishweshwara. She put together her earnings to this end and waited but one day she abandoned her dearest wish. She did this to help an orphan girl get married. The old woman made such a decision because she thought spending her money for her salvation was less important than getting the girl married. By helping the orphan girl have a family to love her was a great act of mercy which no pilgrimage could guarantee.

Next – Kaashi Yatre and the Grandmother

Kaashi Yatre was a favorite novel for Sudha Murthy’s grandmother too. She had identified herself with this old woman in the novel. Like the old woman in the novel, the grandmother also had dreams in life – dream to get educated. Due to the turn of events in her life at a very young age, having had to get married and bear children and shoulder the heavy loads of family responsibilities, the grandmother had to abandon studies. She remained illiterate but this incident transformed her life. Because the grandmother was illiterate, she used to get the novel read by Sudha. After got the story read, she would discuss the upshot of the novel with her friends in the neighborhood. Once, when Sudha was away for a wedding, the grandmother found her in trouble. The novel lay in front but she had no one to read it for her.

Next – Grandmother Decides to Learn

After a few days, when Sudha returned from the wedding, grandmother was in tears. That night she woke Sudha up at the middle of night and requested her to start her classes. Grandmother explained to Sudha her struggles and her long forgotten love to learn reading and writing. Sudha got it. She agreed to teach her grandmother. In a few days grandmother mastered alphabets. On the day of Durga Puja, she achieved her goal and read the title of the book, Kaashi Yatre. Sudha gave her a copy of the book Kaashi Yatre and grandmother touched her feet in respect. It was not like a grandmother touching the feet of her granddaughter, but as a student touching the feet of a teacher. You can agree with the grandmother’s act of touching her granddaughter’s feet or laugh at it. However, the grandmother has her reasons to do so. She is a traditionalist and a true Indian woman.

Questions & Answers
  1. How did the author’s going to the neighboring village to attend a wedding bring endless suffering for the grandmother?
    The grandmother never knew the shame of literary dependence because she got her most loved novel read to her by Sudha. While listening to the novel, she never felt the need of reading it herself because in her village old women seldom read or attempted to read. So far she belonged to the ordinary women of her time but a wedding transformed her life altogether. Those days of impatient wait for her ‘reader’ transformed the grandmother’s views – she learnt that depending on someone to get a novel read was different from waiting for someone to take to the other side of the road. If the second is to be considered inevitable, the first is slavery, when it can be overcome. She decided to learn to read – to overcome the slavery.
  2. From what dependence did the grandmother want to be free?
    The grandmother was illiterate. She used to depend on her granddaughter for reading stories that she loved to read. But suddenly she decided to be free herself from depending on someone to read and went on to learn reading.
  3. Why did grandmother want to learn to read at a very late age?”
    The grandmother had ardent love for learning since she was a child but life had been a struggle for her. She had to abandon schooling and learning for her family and for her younger siblings. With a very early marriage, children and responsibility, she was tied up and school was a distant dream for her. Later, when she was free from the family bonding, to read Kaashi Yatre without someone’s help, she decided to learn reading. It came out of her wish to be independent.
  4. Do you justify the grandmother’s act of touching her grand daughter’s feet?”
    It is easy to talk about humility but in real life killing one’s ego and touching someone’s feet, especially one younger, is next to impossible. Indian tradition respects teachers next to God and beyond religions and teachings, people here agree in theory but there is hardly any here who can bend down in front of his little granddaughter to touch her feet because of the presence of ego. What the grandmother did was not a sudden, thoughtless act. It was done with the same intensity of determination with which she started learning. The grandmother did a great act by touching the little Sudha’s feet.
  5. What was the author’s gift for her ‘student?’
    Sudha Murthy presented to the grandmother a complete edition of the novel Kaashi Yatre, which had driven the old lady to reading, as a gift on her successful completion of learning to read.

Next – Analytical Questions

  1. How was the grandmother an extra ordinary woman in her society and at her time?
    The grandmother lived in such a society full of ordinary people with the same psychological complexities that novelists like Triveni touched and dealt with. The grandmother was another ordinary woman but her unique wish to be independent in the matter of reading places here in a unique level of women – the successful ones. In the past and even today, women need to work harder to reach a level of importance than men have to and this enhances the grandmother’s greatness. It is to be remembered that none else in her society thought of learning at such a point of life and old-age literacy programs were unknown at that time.
  2. Do you think the grandmother was a good student who should be a model for all the students of all the time? Explain.
    Though the concept of ideal student has changed with regards to the change of the ideal teacher concept, there remains the ideal student and the ideal teacher in countries like India. Students today, for whatever reasons, do not feel the respect that they show with their good-mornings and ovation. They speak words that are believed to evoke respect just by uttering those words. In India bending and touching the feet of the elders has become a joke as the young ones are either asked to bend or expected to touch the feet. Speaking only about teacher-student respect, the grandmother stands poles away from the new generation children that it appears that the grandmother did something foolish or unacceptable, but the truth remains unchallenged – the grandmother had possessed such a height of character and content that our dead civilization needs to rise to the same height to which the grandmother had grown from a very backward village.
  3. Illiteracy doesn’t mean absolute ignorance and lack of culture. How is the grandmother a proof for this?
    A large population of the world still remains illiterate or unlettered. Illiteracy is an evil for a number of reasons but we fail to think that the illiterates are not necessarily savage or uncivilized. The grandmother in the story is not literate but the height of her character is nonpareil, especially her act of touching her granddaughter’s feet for being her teacher. It is easy to boast of humility but it is very difficult to be humble.

Next – Less Possible Questions

  1. What caused the delay in the arrival of newspapers and magazines in the author’s village?
    The author had her childhood spent in a remote village of Karanataka, in the first half of the 20th century. The village was far from being developed and it had a transport system in its infancy and this caused delay in the arrival of newspapers and magazines in the author’s village.
  2. What was unfortunate about Triveni and Kannada literature?”
    Triveni’s literary popularity was souring high when suddenly she died very young at the age of 35, in 1963. She was unique in her line of writing and Kannada literature had to wait long for another similar writers who knew women and their problems more.
  3. What is the significance of the grandmother’s describing her past to the author at night?
    The grandmother was an extraordinary woman. If she hadn’t been part of a family that demanded a lot out of her, she would have grown up differently. It was because of the heavy load of responsibility that she had to abandon learning at a very young age. By describing her past to the author, she was establishing how much she deserved and longed for education even at such an old age.

Next – Reference to Context (Optional)

“My grandmother called me to the pooja place and made me sit down on a stool.”

  1. Why did the grandmother call Sudha Murthy to the pooja place?
    Grandmother called Sudha to the place of pooja to touch her feet as a mark of gratitude.
  2. Why was that day and that pooja important for the grandmother and the granddaughter?
    For the grandmother, that pooja was important because it was this day that she had kept as a deadline to complete her learning of Kannada alphabets and for the grand-daughter it was the day her first student proved to be the best student ever.
  3. What was the grandmother intending to do shortly afterward?
    The grandmother was intending to touch Sudha’s feet as a sign of traditional respect shown to teachers. She was also prepared to gift a frock material to her teacher.

“It is a great tradition but today the reverse has happened.”

  1. What is referred to as great tradition?
  2. What is the reverse happening mentioned?
  3. What was the narrator’s reaction to what happened reverse?

“I knew then that my student had passed with flying colors.”

  1. Who is the speaker and the one referred to as ‘my student?’
  2. What made the speaker think that her student had passed with flying colors?

“I could not understand why my sixty two year old grandmother was telling me, a twelve year old girl, the story of her life in the middle of the night.”

  1. Why did the grandmother choose to tell her story at night?
  2. What was the grandmother trying to convince her granddaughter?

Next – Multiple Choice Questions

Avva in Kannada means…

  • Grandmother
  • Mother
  • Dear
  • Student

Kashi is also known as…

  1. Madurai
  2. Varanasi
  3. Ayodhya
  4. Haridwar

The old lady in Kashi Yatre gave away her savings to…

  1. A beggar girl
  2. A beggar boy
  3. An orphan girl
  4. A widow

The god worshiped in Kashi is…

  1. Lord Hanuman
  2. Lord Ayyappa
  3. Lord Shiv
  4. Lord Vishweshwara

Occasion of a marriage was important for boys and girls because…

  1. They could eat a lot
  2. They were less restricted by their parents and elders
  3. They could observe marriage procedures
  4. All of the above

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