When I was back home in India during the summer, I was just going through my contact list and trying to refine it – deleting numbers I don’t need anymore. There were two names I came across that I couldn’t immediately recognize. But soon enough I remembered who they were and this is a story of my brief association with those two women. I never met them; haven’t even seen their photos. But I spoke to them everyday for many months back in 2012-13. This was as part of an initiative by the One Billion Literates Foundation (OBLF) for which I was one of the volunteers. OBLF imparts education to rural women who in turn pass on their knowledge to children in Government schools. At one point it was observed that these women (referred to as coordinators) did not have anyone with who they could talk to in English on an everyday basis. Hence came this initiative where a volunteer was tied up with a coordinator and all that the volunteers had to do was call up their respective coordinators everyday and speak in English. If the coordinators were to get more exposure to spoken English, the incentive for volunteers was getting a new friend.
The first coordinator I spoke to was a young woman roughly about my age. It was many years since her father had passed away. She lived with her mother and two sisters. Agriculture was their family’s main source of income and she loved working in the field herself. She would tell me a lot of things about the plants their family cultivated and what type of irrigation techniques they employed. We sometimes spoke about the different government policies and how they affected the farmers. That was a time when there had been reports of farmer suicides in the media and the government not doing much to help them. But surprisingly, my pen friend told me that she was very happy with the government; that it was very easy for them to take loans and that all kind of support – from getting the seeds to getting advice from agricultural experts – was provided by the government. It made me happy to learn that there was a different story on the other side of the coin. No doubt that our government on most occasions are lousy and corrupt, but sometimes there are some genuine measures taken to help the needy and these are never really highlighted by the media.
Coming next to the main point which made us acquaint with each other, I am no expert to judge someone’s English but I would say I did not have any problems interacting with her in English. She probably made slightly more mistakes in her language than I did but I always understood what she spoke. She was an ambitious young woman; she was educated and had knowledge of computers which eventually found her a permanent job as a receptionist in some office. That was the end of her association with OBLF and she never answered my call again.
When I contacted OBLF about it, they said they tied me up with another coordinator who had replaced the previous one. This second coordinator was about a couple of years older than me, married and had two children. My interaction with her was very different compared to my interactions with the first coordinator. To start with, I found it really hard to understand her language. She had limited education and was a homemaker apart from being a part of OBLF. She spoke about her family and asked me about mine. She lived in a joint family and would tell me about all the people at home. She was a religious person and would tell me about the customs, traditions and festivals they had in her village. On certain issues, her thoughts and opinions were very different from mine. Even though she was not that much older than me, I felt like we were from different eras. This was something I never experienced with the first coordinator who had sounded to me like any of my other friends.
The stark difference between these two coordinators made me realize that even within people of rural background, there are gaps. While my first coordinator seemed like a symbol of rural India catching up with the urban and modern India, my second coordinator was someone who made me feel there is still much much more to do to fill the gap between rural and urban India. I could never observe much improvement in the first one’s English because from the time I started talking to her, her English was quite good. With the second one, I could see her getting better at the language and in the fluency with which she spoke and yet there was much to improve upon. But her daughters were going to school and getting good education.
In spite of the differences, what bound both of them was that they were learning and teaching English by being a part of the OBLF initiative and hence earning extra income which made them somewhat independent. While knowledge of English language in itself can hardly be called a sign of development or growth, it can be an important factor in putting students educated in a Government school at the same level as students from English-medium schools in India. It always seems like there’s a long way to go in covering the rural-urban divide and the poor-rich divide. But as long as there are people on both sides of the divide contributing in their own little ways to cover the gap, there is always some hope. My association with this initiative came to an end when I moved to Sweden for my higher education.