The Reader3 mins 99 3 mins 99
Doesn't the 80s evoke a fond, near-yet-so-far sense of nostalgia? Home entertainment meant Doordarshan. Can one ever forget Buniyaad, Nukkad, and Mujrim Hazir? Ramayan and Mahabharat on Sundays. The much-awaited Chitrahaar on Wednesday nights. Even newsreaders had a large, loyal fan following. Tejeshwar Singh with that male baritone, Rini Simon with her faultless English. Cricket matches telecast with just a couple of cameras with the cameras often missing the ball's trajectory while being hit for a big six! On the streets, Bajaj Chetaks and Lambys vied for space with Ambassadors and Fiats. Contessa Classics were the symbol of the affluent. Snail mail was the major mode of communication with the fastest mode of communication being the telegram. The humble postman delivered letters, telegrams, parcels, and money orders.
One day in this India of the 80s, in Pattambi, a quaint town in Kerala, a twenty-something Premachandran received a telegram delivered by the legendary postman Radhakrishnan. It was from his uncle in Delhi. 'Selected for IMA. Start to Dehradun immediately' it read tersely. Success almost always comes with mixed emotions. Happy to the point of being ecstatic, Prem already started living the dream of an Army officer. However, there were alternate thoughts that occupied his mind. The thought of leaving his widowed, old mother alone at home, missing the romance of the Kerala countryside - those elaborate baths in the freshwater pond, red rice with fish curry meals, serene temples, those festivals, and the carefree, simple life. The thought of his mother staying all alone at night, the thought of being able to see her only once in months, the thought of not being able to talk to her daily disturbed him greatly. The only way of communicating with his mother would be by snail mail. And it would take 2-3 days for an inland letter to reach Pattambi from Dehradun. He decided to send a telegram once he reached Dehradun and regular snail mails afterward. But there was another peculiar problem too.
In 1947, when the British left a battered India, our literacy rate was a meager 12%. 2020 figures of 74% are a vast improvement though. However, there is a huge gender disparity in the figures. While the literacy rate of men is 82%, that of women is a mere 65%. How shameful that in the 21st century dominated by Driverless cars, AI, ML, and IOT, 35% of women in our country have not yet been taught to read or write any alphabet.
Kerala, however, had always been a silver lining in the cloud. A matrilineal system among some communities combined with early social equality and gender equality movements ensured that it traditionally had the highest literacy rates in India with women's literacy rates almost the same as men. However, in India, literacy begins and ends at the state borders. This means that Prem's mother was Malayalam-literate but did not know to read or write any other Indian regional language. Neither did she know to read or write English. Prem was quite the opposite. Ever since his father passed away during his childhood, he did most of his schooling in Delhi while staying with his uncle. He was English and Hindi literate but not Malayalam literate! When he came down to Kerala for his engineering degree, he found it tough to read bus boards and local newspapers. An English literate Prem and his Malayalam literate mother presented a diverse but difficult Indian society struggling to communicate effectively among its people.
Prem, however, had help at hand from his Malayalee trainee cadets who did the English-Malayalam translation and the Malayalam-English translation. At the end of the training, before they were posted in various regions, Prem's mother had two letters from the IMA delivered by Radhakrishnan. One from Prem and another from the group of translators bidding farewell. Love triumphs.