It was on a rainy day last week that Ravi came running up to our third floor house, pretending he was a fast train. He rang the bell like it was the whistle of a steam engine. Acting as if I was loading a goods wagon, I handed him a bundle of clothes for ironing, with the usual reminder that he should take them to his parents without dropping them even once.

I reminded him of the time when he had dropped my freshly washed white salwar in a puddle. Pretending to be Shaktimaan, or the local Superman who appears in a television serial, he tried to “fly” from the fifth stair and crashed to the ground.

But that is how five-year-old Ravi tries to make his “job” interesting – he collects clothes from 40 houses in the neighbourhood, climbing up three floors at least twice a day. His parents, who spend the entire day pressing a five kg black hissing iron on innumerable clothes, do not have the strength or patience to do the collecting.

The Lesson [Illustrations by Babita]
The Lesson [Illustrations by Babita]

Babita’s impression of the tree under which her parents iron clothes

Earlier, 10-year-old Babita, Ravi’s elder sister would perform this task. She has now started working as a baby sitter at a neighbour’s house, for her parents say they need the money she earns. Babita, whose only dream is to go to school, secretly reads the Hindi story books I’ve given her, whenever she has the time. And that’s how Ravi started doing the rounds.

When he’s not running up and down the neighbourhood, the brat with monkey eyes and spiky brown hair is chasing stray dogs in the locality, or playing with his one-year-old sister who lies on a cot under the tree where Kamla and Rajesh have put up their ironing table.

Every now and then Ravi comes dressed in a school uniform, and we get to know that he is attending school. The news is all over the neighbourhood – “Ravi has started going to school.” For some days he goes “off duty” and his mother comes to collect the clothes. And master Ravi proudly walks around in his blue and khaki dress, and shiny black plastic shoes which squeak happily every time he puts a foot forward.

Then, before anyone can say “Ravi”, he is at the doorstep asking for clothes, and sometimes a biscuit, toffee or bread – “Give me anything didi, I am hungry, and I will give half of it to my little sister.” And it is no longer possible to make out from his muddy clothes if he is wearing a uniform or not.

But on that wet monsoon morning, Ravi was not interested in taking the bundle of clothes. He did not smile when I asked him if he wanted a biscuit. I wondered if he was unwell, and asked him. He said his hair was falling in handfuls and was scared everyone would call him taklu or baldy. “Didi do you have any medicine that makes hair grow?”

“No,” I said. I asked him if his teacher had told him how it is important to eat proper food so that hair grows strong.

At the mention of the teacher, Ravi looked disgusted and said, “I have left school. They don’t make us study anything.”

This was the fifth time he had dropped out of the municipal school in the last couple of years.

He saw the look of surprise on my face and said scornfully, “ After taking attendance Sir jee gets busy with his personal work. The only time he makes us write is during exams, when he asks us to copy from the blackboard. Who bhi, inna chhota sa ki dikhayi nahin deta. (That too, he writes in such small letters that it is impossible to see.)

“Which class are you in?” I asked.

“The first,” he said proudly, with a shine in his eyes. “I have all the books and notebooks that you get in the first standard.”

“Can you read?”

“No, but I can write,” he said with great confidence. “Give me anything and I will write and show you. I have copied the entire ‘Bal Bharati’, our Hindi text book.”

It was clear that Ravi had been copying the alphabet without being able to read it. The teacher made the students copy the answers during exams so that he could show the principal that his class was full of good students who had passed. And poor Ravi did not even know that copying letters was not learning.

“Don’t you feel like understanding what you have written?” I asked Ravi.

“Maybe, they will teach us to write now and read in a higher class,” he said. Changing the subject he asked if I had bought the sketch book and colours that I had promised him.

“Why do you need the colours?” Why can’t you just draw with a pencil?”

“Arre, how can that be? If I draw the tree that my little sister sleeps under, won’t I have to colour it green? After all, the tree is green in the monsoon,” said Ravi impatiently.

“Without understanding, you are happy to write anything by copying it from the book. Then why can’t you draw the tree without colour?” I asked him. “If you want to write about that day when your little sister tried to catch the squirrel by the tail, how will you do it? You have not learnt to read the alphabet.”

Ravi’s eyebrows drew close, his eyes narrowed, and his tongue stuck out – he was trying to understand what I had just said. After all, it was related to the tree his little sister slept under.

And then he jumped high in the air. He was excited. He had understood something. “Didi, I know what you are saying. I have seen my mother heat the coal before ironing. Only when they are red hot, like the evening sun, does she put them inside the iron so that it gets hot and presses the clothes. She cannot iron the clothes with cold coal.

Only if I read the alphabet, will I be able to make my own words and write about my chubby little sister. I will be able to read stories on my own, for Babita never reads to me. She thinks too much of herself.”

Babita draws herself and Ravi (giving him a real naughty look)

Suddenly, a thought struck him.

“Didi, doesn’t the teacher know that reading and writing go together? Why does he make us copy everything from the blackboard, telling us we are stupid? He is not a good teacher.”

I hugged Ravi so hard he was surprised, and told him that no one could ever call him stupid. That evening Ravi got a brand new sketch book and colour pencils for having learnt one of the most important lessons in life. He had not only easily connected the pencil line with colour in his mind; he had finally understood the relationship between reading and writing – like two eyes looking at one world.

1186 words | 14 minutes
Readability: Grade 6 (11-12 year old children)
Based on Flesch–Kincaid readability scores

Filed under: features
Tags: #monsoons, #hindi, #alphabet

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