“This place is scary. There are no people around.”

I looked again at my perfectly chosen neighbourhood. The trees were tall and budding into spring, clear sunshine peeping through directly onto my lawn. It shone on the morning dew, the grass green as it can only be in spring when the frosts had done their bit and gone. The avenue was wide — we had chosen a road where a bus plied, connecting the two main markets that our parents might want to visit. Parents don’t like being dependent on cars and children when they visit, so we had tried our very best to find the perfect house in a safe area, close to their friends and not more than half an hour away from an ‘Indian’ market. There were parks nearby and the river was not far away. You could not see them but the local shops were barely five minutes away in either direction.

Yet she felt unsafe.


Wrong footed.

It was true, she was not in her own country. She could not do as she pleased, nor behave in ways that were natural to her.

We were lucky, because we were city folk. Global citizens. Well read. Knew the ways of the world. It was easier for us to watch, learn, adapt. (Oh, there is no getting it right, but one tries). Do what other people are doing, not what you want to do. Walk taller, look confident, don’t touch the goods before buying, don’t look into other people’s gardens (who knows what they might think), don’t demonstrate emotion, speak in a flatter voice (or they will mock your accent — I love you too much to let you be mocked). These were insular people, they had not traveled the world, like we had. They knew no better. It is up to us, who are wiser and smarter to adapt to the ways of the ignorant, we persuaded her.

It wasn’t going to be easy for her. So much here was the exact opposite of years of acculturation. No, I will not say that Indian women lower their eyes in modesty, whatever modesty means to those who need it. But it was essential to make eye contact here, or you’d be seen as shifty, dishonest. In India that might actually be dangerous, an invitation to harassment, at the very least. I once made accidental eye contact with a young man in a DTC bus with a happy twinkle in my eye as I looked up from a funny passage I was reading at the time. He followed me around for over two hours, as I changed three or four buses, anxious not to lead him anywhere close to my real address. (Oh, not exaggerating at all. Others have had similar experiences. I was tagged in a popular tweet yesterday: ‘everything is a signal to Indian men’). We learn to test, not trust. So, like many around the Mediterranean, we touch and feel our fruit n veg before we buy. I have known shopkeepers to be rude about that here. So we laid down rules. She resented them. But complied.

Many don’t. And suffer. Or suffer differently.

As is the old Patel grandfather, in hospital now. He was tackled by the Madison (Alabama) police very roughly and is partially paralysed. The officer has been fired, but the problem has not been solved. What was his offence? He was walking, looking around, wearing a brown skin (black, the caller said). He was new to the area, to the country, to the language. When attacked by officers, all he offered in defence was the word, “India”.

Sadly, it was not strong enough to protect him. In a country where citizens believe that when they travel the world, naming their country gives them some rights elsewhere, it seems they forgot to reciprocate the respect (shall we look up how many try to travel abroad without a passport or a visa?) Reminds me of a speech in the West Wing where President Bartlett holds forth on what it meant to be a Roman citizen, what it meant to say- “I am an American”. This is what Patel uncle (that’s how we’d say it in India, we adopt acquaintances too) said. He said: India.

But he said it in a place where they were not able to comprehend that there was another way of doing things. “Do you understand?”, they asked. The rules said that this was enough. Of course, only one who spoke that language could answer the question. A lack of response to that is not a lack of co-operation. It is a lack of comprehension. It is a lack built into the question, a systemic failure. Someone forgot to check the question protocol, it seems.

I am not even going to talk of racism. Of the fear of brown or black skin that triggered this incident and so many more. They have demons in their minds and their histories and they foster them. Chapel Hill is current, another tragedy of the mind that rent a family. Ferguson is still fresh. Their problems are staring at them in the face.

I hark back to the Norway incident. A young child of Indian parents taken into care by the authorities because the mother was deemed unfit. Maybe she was, and the details of the case are a beyond the veil of a family’s privacy. But those in the public domain are clear. Among other things, the lady was accused of sending the child late to school because she was feeding another child. And of co-sleeping. And letting the child sleep when the child wanted to (oh dear, the cardinal sin of letting a child having a natural body clock!). That’s, you know, sort of normal in India when the child is still in kindergarten or nursery. We are not ruled by the tyranny of the clock here, shocking as it may sound to those cultures that are ruled by the diary or agenda. Here, we let the child sleep in, we let our hair remain uncombed for a while, let a bit of dust accumulate as we cuddle the child. We feed our child without looking to closely at the clock and then we let things run their course. If this was one of her sins, then it was only a sin of breaking the cultural barrier and carrying through what was familiar and comfortable. Yes, the sin of comfort.

But it was her hysterical crying at the police station that sealed the fate of that case then. She cried when her child was torn from her as every mother in Bollywood has done since Nirupa Roy perfected the act. Or maybe even before that. If you do not cry, tear your clothes and hair, show so much distress that may even lead to self harm, then are you distressed enough? A good mother, we are taught, will cut herself before she lets anyone touch her child. They touched her child. What was she to do? Be stoic and strong like her hosts and run the risk of being labeled a bad mother (again!). She did what her culture had taught her to do. She demonstrated her emotions. That was a charge against her.

Globally illiterate.
All the people in these stories come across as globally illiterate. The price for this is high — lives are destroyed, families ripped apart, communities vilified, racism reinforced. We have seen wars fought across timezones because of global illiteracy. This is beyond cultural mores, beyond awareness and bogies of tolerance. This is about cognition, awareness, adaptation, survival, growth. And about wisdom. About the ability to comprehend the data for the context it represents — and decide well.

As a global traveler one realises one would fail if we tried to educate the lands we reside in as visitors or immigrants. Why would they care to change — if they had the internal resources to educate themselves, they would have done so already. One will find many who have. Many who know things about the lands you traveled (even the land you came from) more than you could glean in your visits. One will also find many more who cannot comprehend a world beyond the one they see. For the literal ones, the globally illiterate, the wise visitor bends. Consider it an act of compassion, of charity. It is okay if they do not understand their ways, at least you can become smart enough to use your global literacy to keep yourself safe.

Watch. Learn. Mimic. Learn. Adapt. Learn. Adopt. Learn. Be Adopted. Learn. And learn to share slowly.

Become literate in the language of the world.

As I sign off, I hear cries of outrage — did you say it was the fault of the victims? Did you just say that they should have done more to be more harmless? What could be more harmless than an old man taking a walk in his neighbourhood?


What could be more harmful than power given to the hands of the globally illiterate? I am shocked that the globally literate are put in positions of power, have weapons and prisons at their disposal. Those who are globally illiterate are ill equipped to deal with today’s world. Educate them before releasing them into the present world. Or they will do more damage in living the lie they have swallowed. The lie that people inhabit their own tiny corner of the world, the lie that there is only one right way to do things and that they know it all. To be limited to knowing one truth is to be hobbled in the world — only the globally illiterate can stay in this ghetto of the mind.

What of the local? What of history, and traditions and ‘way of life’? Shall that be abandoned? Of course not. You can hold on to it, you just cannot live it any more. Do preserve what is good in your history. Treasure it. Value it. Invest in it. Respect it. Even teach your children about it. But do not live in the delusion that it exists as it used to even yesterday.

It is gone. Look around you, at the things you use everyday and where they came from. Look at the histories of the medicines you consume, at the clothes you wear, at the food you eat. Look at what you are reading now and the device you use. Nothing would have been achieved if we were only local. Even our seeds, our foods were blown by the winds, carried over deep waters. Our races too. We have traveled, fought, loved, f****d, negotiated, cheated, and shared our way into every corner of the world. We are all a mixed bag of us. We have always been global. Our quest for the here, for now, for what is ‘ours’ is a false image. Born of our fears, fostered by our walls. To let myopia show us the way would be to limit ourselves to the here and now. To stagnate, to be still — when that happens, we call it death.

To let the world fall into the hands of the globally illiterate is to live in denial of the truth. To recognise and build on our global selves is to be honest with ourselves, past and future.

 Also published on:

https://medium.com/@Meetasengupta/global-illiteracy-and-its-ghettos-e6e8a6489fe3 on Feb 13, 2015

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