We had two maids in Mumbai. The older one, Rehmat Bi, was in charge. I came home from a trip one day and, as usual, I raced to gaze lovingly at the bookshelves covering all my bedroom walls. My books, my babies.

“What’s this?" I screeched. “What happened to my books?"

“I made that silly deaf thing (the junior maid) clean and arrange them," Rehmat Bi said proudly. “We put them in order for you."

I was dumbfounded. My carefully arranged books, for which I had devised categories and categories within categories, had been taken out, dusted and put back by size. The columns marched proudly across each shelf, with the tall, fat hardcovers leading the way (How Things Work next to The Satanic Verses, and at the other end, The Lover improbably next to Peanuts). Some were even upside down.

Don’t think for a moment that Rehmat Bi was stupid. She supported a large family. She worked abroad, fought off illness and poverty, arranged marriages and rearranged life. And like hundreds of millions of India’s women, she couldn’t read.

Years ago, I asked Mati, our ancient Adivasi neighbour in Maharashtra’s Tembre village, “Would you like to be able to read a book?"

She laughed heartily. What a silly idea.

Just as it’s impossible for someone who cannot read to imagine what reading is and what it does, it’s very hard for me, for whom written words are like air, like blood, to imagine a life without books, a life in which traffic signs are mysteries and the writing on cans and boxes just so many squiggles. It is hard for me to imagine having to stay within the bounds of my own experience, to never open a book and escape to Iceland, or Limpopo, or 1459.

The majority of the world’s illiterates are women. Too often, girls either get pulled out of school early to work at home, or they aren’t sent at all. Why educate a girl who is going to leave anyway? Now consider this: Women who can read and write have fewer children than those who can’t. Nothing wrong with children, but it’s nice to be able to choose and afford them. Families with educated women are also more likely to enjoy better health, housing, income, food, water and sanitation. Reading lets you decipher your own land deeds, stock certificates, marriage licences and bus tickets, and develop an awareness of the world outside the circle of the kerosene lamp.

According to the 2011 census, the female literacy level in India is about 65%, and the male literacy rate about 80%. Tribal rates are worse: The Union ministry of tribal affairs reports that in 2011, the overall Scheduled Tribes literacy rate was about 59%, but only 49% of tribal women were considered literate. What does this even mean? It means the percentage of people over seven years old who can read and write. This is vague. Plenty of people are “literate" and wouldn’t be able to open a book and tell you whether it contains love sonnets or instructions on how to dismantle a carburettor.

The Tembre government school opened in 1953. All the classes fit into two rooms. School starts at 11am, but most students are there by 10.30. They want to read, they want to write.

When my mother held English classes in Tembre some years ago, children would show up unscheduled and weep if she turned them away. When my friend Jacob Lief went to South Africa, he walked through a township and saw children ironing their uniforms with hot stones because they were so proud to go to school that they wanted to look their very best. He was so moved that he began the Ubuntu Education Fund, which has helped educate thousands of township children.

India comes in at No.185 in an IndexMundi list of 215 countries ranked by literacy rates. How embarrassing! Perhaps the government could spend less energy locking up students for sedition and try to educate them instead? There’s a thought. Reading all these books gives me some strange ideas.

Having ideas, knowing things—that’s what makes books and words so powerful, dangerous, seductive and liberating. Dipa Shah, my daughter’s English teacher, is talking about this with her class as they read Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s prescient, dystopian 1953 novel about a world where books are banned, and burnt. “A book is a loaded gun," says one character.

The novel is about knowing as much as it is about unknowing. It’s frightening and familiar. In every community, we all conspire to know some things and unknow some things.

Many years ago, somebody murdered a stranger in the forest behind Tembre. The corpse lay across a path. Everyone knew about it (especially after a dog brought home one of the unfortunate man’s legs), everyone went to see it, but no one did anything.

“Doesn’t the police patil have to act?" I asked a local politician.

“Only if he knows about it," he said. “No one has reported it to him."

“But hasn’t he seen it?"

“Of course, but nobody wrote a report."

We all knew but none of us knew, and the dead man rotted slowly in
the jungle.

If no one wrote about it, it didn’t happen. This memory is tied up in my head with this business of knowing/unknowing, with the access and knowledge and freedom that written words give us, and with the kind of unknowing that seems to be running rampant in our country. Changing the history books, clamping down on the press, silencing dissent—it’s the opposite of knowing. It’s the opposite of a literate, open society where words have value. And they do. Even upside down.

The columnist was a senior editor at the Ubuntu Education Fund from 2011-13. Parts of this column appeared earlier on the columnist’s website.

Sohaila Abdulali is a New York-based writer. She writes a fortnightly column on women in the 21st century.

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