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       How I Taught My Grandmother to Read and other Stories, p.1

           Sudha Murty
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How I Taught My Grandmother to Read and other Stories


  How I TAUGHT my GRANDMOTHER to READ and other stories

  Illustrations By Priya Kuriyan




  How I Taught My Grandmother to Read

  Books for ‘At Least One Library’

  Salaam Abdul Kalam

  Hassan’s Attendance Problem

  The Red Rice Granary

  The Real Jewels

  A History Lesson on Teachers’ Day

  ‘Appro J.R.D.’

  Heart of Gold

  A Wedding in Russia

  ‘Amma, What Is Your Duty?’

  The Story of Two Doctors

  A Journey Through the Desert

  Dead Man’s Riddle

  ‘I Will Do It’

  The Rainy Day

  Doing What You Like Is Freedom

  Gowramma’s Letter

  Who Is Great?

  Balu’s Story

  ‘A’ for Honesty

  A Lesson in Ingratitude

  My Biggest Mistake

  The Secret

  Follow Penguin




  Sudha Murty was born in 1950 in Shiggaon in north Karnataka. She did her MTech in computer science, and is now the chairperson of the Infosys Foundation. A prolific writer in English and Kannada, she has written novels, technical books, travelogues, collections of short stories and non-fictional pieces, and four books for children. Her books have been translated into all the major Indian languages.

  Sudha Murty was the recipient of the R.K.Naryan Award for Literature and the Padma Shri in 2006, and the Attimabbe Award from the government of Karnataka for excellence in Kannada literature in 2011.

  Dedicated to

  the citizens of tomorrow

  who will bring

  changes in

  our country


  I was brought up in a village. Those days there were no televisions, music systems or VCDs at home. Our only luxury was books. I was fortunate to have grandparents. My grandfather was a retired school teacher and an avid reader. He knew a vast number of Sanskrit texts by heart and every night, under the dark sky with the twinkling stars, he would tell me many stories. These were stories from the history of India, the epics and whatever interesting things he had read that day in the papers and magazines. These tales taught me some of my first lessons in life. The Katha Saritsagara (the Ocean of Stories), Arabian Nights, Panchatantra, stories of Aesop, Birbal and Tenali Rama were told to me during those beautiful nights.

  The years rolled by, and so much changed in India. Now families are nuclear and children rarely get to live with their grandparents. The arrival of TV and the dramatizations of our ancient epics brought these stories closer to us and helped us know them, but it also removed the power of imagination. Storytelling is not easy. It requires the proper modulation of voice, in order to create an atmosphere of horror, surprise, humour or peace. During those storytelling nights, I have travelled with my grandfather to the battlefield of Haldi Ghati in Rajasthan and cried for the dead horse Chetak. I enjoyed the victory of Shivaji sitting next to his great mother Jeejabai. I have been thrilled listening to the description of the battles of Raja Ranjit Singh and moved to tears with the stories of his large-heartedness. I cried when the first war of Independence, which the British called ‘Mutiny’, was lost. While listening to my grandfather, in my mind I became an Arab and changed my dress to walk the streets of Baghdad and inspect the thieves with the Wazir-e-Alam. I have laughed and learnt valuable lessons about knowledge and wit from the stories of Aesop, Tenali Rama and Birbal.

  In this collection, I have tried to recreate some stories from my experiences, all of which have taught me something. In the course of my work for the Infosys Foundation and as a teacher, I meet many people, young and old, each of whom has enriched my life in some way. I have always wanted to tell these stories to the next generation. I hope you will like and enjoy reading them.

  I want to thank Sudeshna Shome Ghosh of Penguin India. Had she not insisted, the stories would have remained in my mind for ever.

  I would like to add that the royalty of this book is donated to Ramakrishna Ashram, Belgaum, for youth development programme.

  Sudha Murty


  January 2004

  How I Taught My Grandmother to Read

  When I was a girl of about twelve, I used to stay in a village in north Karnataka with my grandparents. Those days, the transport system was not very good, so we used to get the morning paper only in the afternoon. The weekly magazine used to come one day late. All of us would wait eagerly for the bus, which used to come with the papers, weekly magazines and the post.

  At that time, Triveni was a very popular writer in the Kannada language. She was a wonderful writer. Her style was easy to read and very convincing. Her stories usually dealt with complex psychological problems in the lives of ordinary people and were always very interesting. Unfortunately for Kannada literature, she died very young. Even now, after forty years, people continue to appreciate her novels.

  One of her novels, called Kashi Yatre, was appearing as a serial in the Kannada weekly Karmaveera then. It is the story of an old lady and her ardent desire to go to Kashi or Varanasi. Most Hindus believe that going to Kashi and worshipping Lord Vishweshvara is the ultimate punya. This old lady also believed in this, and her struggle to go there was described in that novel. In the story there was also a young orphan girl who falls in love but there was no money for the wedding. In the end, the old lady gives away all her savings without going to Kashi. She says, ‘The happiness of this orphan girl is more important than worshipping Lord Vishweshwara at Kashi.’

  My grandmother, Krishtakka, never went to school so she could not read. Every Wednesday, the magazine would come and I would read the next episode of this story to her. During that time she would forget all her work and listen with the greatest concentration. Later, she could repeat the entire text by heart. My grandmother too never went to Kashi, and she identified herself with the novel’s protagonist. So more than anybody else she was the one most interested in knowing what happened next in the story and used to insist that I read the serial out to her.

  After hearing what happened next in Kashi Yatre, she would join her friends at the temple courtyard, where we children would also gather to play hide-and-seek. She would discuss the latest episode with her friends. At that time, I never understood why there was so much of debate about the story.

  Once I went for a wedding with my cousins to the neighbouring village. In those days, a wedding was a great event. We children enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. We would eat and play endlessly, savouring the freedom because all the elders were busy. I went for a couple of days but ended up staying there for a week.

  When I came back to my village, I saw my grandmother in tears. I was surprised, for I had never seen her cry even in the most difficult situations. What had happened? I was worried.

  ‘Avva, is everything all right? Are you ok?’

  I used to call her Avva, which means mother in the Kannada spoken in north Karnataka.

  She nodded but did not reply. I did not understand and forgot about it. In the night, after dinner, we were sleeping in the open terrace of the house. It was a summer night and there was a full moon. Avva came and sat next to me. Her affectionate hands touched my forehead. I realized she wanted to speak. I asked her, ‘What is the matter?’

  ‘When I was a young girl I lost my mother. There w
as nobody to look after and guide me. My father was a busy man and got married again. In those days people did not consider education essential for girls, so I never went to school. I got married very young and had children. I became very busy. Later I had grandchildren and always felt so much happiness in cooking and feeding all of you. At times I used to regret not going to school, so I made sure that my children and grandchildren studied well …’

  I could not understand why my sixty-two-year-old grandmother was telling me, a twelve-year-old, the story of her life in the middle of the night. But I knew I loved her immensely and there had to be some reason why she was talking to me. I looked at her face. It was unhappy and her eyes were filled with tears. She was a good-looking lady who was usually always smiling. Even today I cannot forget the worried expression on her face. I leaned forward and held her hand.

  ‘Avva, don’t cry. What is the matter? Can I help you in any way?’

  ‘Yes, I need your help. You know when you were away, Karmaveera came as usual. I opened the magazine. I saw the picture that accompanies the story of Kashi Yatre and I could not understand anything that was written. Many times I rubbed my hands over the pages wishing they could understand what was written. But I knew it was not possible. If only I was educated enough. I waited eagerly for you to return. I felt you would come early and read for me. I even thought of going to the village and asking you to read for me. I could have asked somebody in this village but I was too embarrassed to do so. I felt so very dependent and helpless. We are well-off, but what use is money when I cannot be independent?’

  I did not know what to answer. Avva continued.

  ‘I have decided I want to learn the Kannada alphabet from tomorrow onwards. I will work very hard. I will keep Saraswati Pooja day during Dassara as the deadline. That day I should be able to read a novel on my own. I want to be independent.’

  I saw the determination on her face. Yet I laughed at her.

  ‘Avva, at this age of sixty-two you want to learn the alphabet? All your hair is grey, your hands are wrinkled, you wear spectacles and you work so much in the kitchen…’ Childishly I made fun of the old lady. But she just smiled.

  ‘For a good cause if you are determined, you can overcome any obstacle. I will work harder than anybody, but I will do it. For learning there is no age bar.’

  The next day onwards I started my tuition. Avva was a wonderful student. The amount of homework she did was amazing. She would read, repeat, write and recite. I was her only teacher and she was my first student. Little did I know then that one day I would become a teacher in computer science and teach hundreds of students.

  The Dassara festival came as usual. Secretly I bought Kashi Yatre which had been published as a novel by that time. My grandmother called me to the puja place and made me sit down on a stool. She gave me the gift of a frock material. Then she did something unusual. She bent down and touched my feet. I was surprised and taken aback. Elders never touch the feet of youngsters. We have always touched the feet of God, elders and teachers. We consider that as a mark of respect. It is a great tradition but today the reverse had happened. It was not correct.

  She said, ‘I am touching the feet of a teacher, not my granddaughter; a teacher who taught me so well, with so much of affection that I can read any novel confidently in such a short period. Now I am independent. It is my duty to respect a teacher. Is it not written in our scriptures that a teacher should be respected, irrespective of gender and age?’

  I did return namaskara to her by touching her feet and gave my gift to my first student. She opened it and read immediately the title Kashi Yatre by Triveni and the publisher’s name.

  I knew then that my student had passed with flying colours.

  Books for ‘At Least One Library’

  I come from a middle-class teacher’s family. In my family, as with many other families of teachers, books and knowledge were considered to be more important than money.

  In our village, I still remember the way people respected my grandfather. He was certainly not the richest man. He used to sit in front of our house, on a mat below a shady banyan tree. He always held a book in his hand. In the evening people would come to him for his advice. Even the richest man, when passing by, would greet him respectfully. I asked him once, ‘Why should the teacher be respected?’

  He smiled and told me a story. ‘It seems, some friends of Arjuna, the mighty warrior in the Mahabharata, asked him why he gave so much of respect to his teacher Dronacharya. Drona was old, not as rich as Arjuna, and had never ruled any kingdom. But Arjuna would always sit at his feet respectfully. When asked why, it seems Arjuna replied, “In this life everything perishes over a period of time. Whether it be diamond, beauty, gold or even land. Only one thing withstands this destruction. It is knowledge. The more you give the more you get.” A teacher gives knowledge to students and I consider him the richest person. That is the reason a teacher is respected; not for his riches but because he is the source of knowledge.’

  As a child, the first expedition I ever made outside my home was to the village library building with my grandfather. The library was situated in a small two-storied structure. There was a shop on the ground floor and on the first floor was the library. A big banyan tree stood next to the building. There was a cement platform under it. In Kannada we call it katte. In the evening, all the elders of the village would sit here. My grandfather was one of them. I would accompany him and he would go and sit on the platform after dropping me at the first floor.

  It was the first of the many libraries I was to enter. There were cupboards with glass panes so that one could read the titles of the books easily. Newspapers and weeklies were piled up neatly. Tables and chairs were laid for people to sit and read. There was absolute silence. I started reading children’s books there and used to be absorbed in them until my grandfather would call me to go home.

  Years passed and I became a girl of twelve years. By that time, I had finished reading almost all the books in that little village library. At times I used to feel bored going to the library as there were not many new books. But still I accompanied my old grandfather to the banyan tree.

  One such evening, we were coming back after our outing. I was feeling particularly bored with the library that day. It was dark and the street lights were blinking. My grandfather could not see too well so I was leading him by his hand.

  Suddenly he asked me, ‘I will recite half a poem, will you complete it? This is a well-known poem.’

  I said I would try. We often played this game and I had learnt many poems like this. He said, ‘If I have wings . . .’

  I immediately answered without blinking my eyes, ‘I will go to the neighbouring village library and read many more books.’

  My grandfather stopped in surprise. He said, ‘Will you repeat it?’

  I repeated, ‘I will go to the neighbouring village library and read many more books.’

  He laughed and said, ‘What an unusual way to complete the poem! Do you know what the original poem is?’

  ‘Yes, I know.

  ‘‘If I have wings

  I will fly in the vast blue sky

  I will see beautiful places

  I will meet great people

  I will search for hidden treasures.”’

  My grandfather kept quiet. When we reached home he sat down on a mat and called me. He was tired but looked very happy. He took my little hand into his and said, ‘Do you know, there was a great man called Andrew Carnegie in USA. He was a billionaire who lived a century back. He willed all his wealth not to his children, but to build library buildings in as many villages as possible. I have not seen America, but it seems any library you see in any village was invariably built using Andrew Carnegie’s money.

  ‘I do not know how long I will live, but today I realized how much you love books from the way you completed the poem. Promise me, when you grow up, if you have more money than you need, you will buy books for at least one library.’

/>   It was a cold winter night. I still remember the warmth of his large hand in mine. He was old, and his hands had become hard and wrinkled writing thousands of lines on the blackboard with chalk every day. We were not rich like Carnegie, but certainly my grandfather had the richness of experience and knowledge.

  Later in my life, I became well-off. I remembered my promise of buying books for a library. Today, through Infosys Foundation, we have given books to ten thousand such libraries.

  Salaam Abdul Kalam

  I have been writing columns for a number of newspapers and magazines for a while now. One of them was the Week magazine. Writing columns is not an easy job. One has to keep coming up with interesting anecdotes to write about. Sometimes the incident is so nice you feel like writing more but you have to be careful about the word limit. Sometimes you don’t get any ideas at all, though the deadline may be nearing. Only very few gifted people can write regular columns for a long time.

  Once I wrote a column for the Week on the role of Information Technology in people’s lives. It was called ‘IT Divide’. It was based on a true incident that once happened to me.

  Soon after the column appeared, one morning I got a call from Delhi. The operator said, ‘Shri Abdul Kalam wants to talk to you.’

  That time Abdul Kalam was Principal Scientific Secretary to the Government of India. I had never met him in person till then. I had only read about him in the papers and seen him on TV. Of course, I started wondering why a person of his stature would want to talk to an ordinary person like me. We had nothing in common. It would be like a meeting between a Himalayan peak and the peak of Unkal Hill, which is in the small town of Hubli in north Karnataka.

  When Abdul Kalam came on the line I said, ‘Sir, there is a mistake by the operator. Perhaps you want to speak to my husband, Narayana Murthy?’ I knew Murthy knew Mr Kalam. From the other end a soft, affectionate voice replied, ‘Vanakkam, there is absolutely no mistake. I told the operator to connect to you only.’

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