The Girl from Cheranmadevi

What is literacy, really? The government of India theoretically defines it as the ability to read and write with understanding. Read and write, one can still define with some degree of objectivity, even if there are degrees involved. In practical reality, the ability to read or write can vary from “I can understand Shashi Tharoor without a thesaurus” to the bare minimum of being able to sign one’s name & recognize numbers. It’s also not surprising that it’s often the bare minimum definition that the government will use to lay claim to improved literacy numbers. Rule 0 of measuring someone’s performance with a metric is “The metric will most certainly be gamed”.

And then we have “understanding”, which is rather vague, really. With a bachelor’s degree in engineering, I can still not understand the impenetrably dense (while precise) legalese used in contracts and risk documents for mutual fund investments. And then there is a more emergent sense of social or civic literacy. The ability to read with understanding is a crucial foundation for democracy, particularly if people are expected to understand their rights within a written constitution, and at a more tactical level, the ability to understand laws and rules, and thus abide by them. But what if we extend this definition to the ability for a society to read and appreciate the dilemmas between individual rights in a constitution and the contradictory messages that tradition, customs & religion amplify daily, like women’s rights or caste hierarchies? Is that too much too fast for Indian society? Who gets to determine the appropriateness of the pace of progress?

In the 18th century, Scandinavia was able to aggressively attain 100% literacy and one of the things that helped (among other things) was the Church deciding to allow marriages only if both parties were literate. And once women became literate, they were able to join professional guilds and thus make money to be able to own property, which then gave them voting rights almost a century ahead of most other parts of the world. So I realize that even a perfunctory tick mark based definition of literacy is still a step in the direction of progress.

I was standing near the door of my compartment on the Kanyakumari Express that was stationary outside Virudhunagar, waiting for trains from the Tanjore delta that were delayed by Cyclone Gaja to cross before heading northwards. That was when these thoughts about literacy wafted in, along with an unhealthy dose of passive smoke from two gentlemen who were puffing away right under the “No smoking” sign.

But for this story, we will need to rewind to a few days earlier.

I packed my bags and headed to a place I hadn’t been in a while, a railway station. The fact that I didn’t have to make a Shah Rukh Khan open arms pose while a strapping CISF guard groped me, or breathe stale, dehydrated, recycled air filed with pathogens coughed out by bawling toddlers, while forcing down microwaved-to-death food in a pressurized aluminium tube stabbing mother earth’s backside with a knife made of greenhouse gases, was a pleasant respite. I was headed to my late father’s native village, Gopalasamudram, a sleepy little hamlet hugging the sand-mafia ravaged banks of the Tamaraparani river that cultivated more banana than the soil and ground water could sustainably tolerate.


I was there to sort out a minor property dispute involving my late dad’s (and his siblings’) ancestral home, a train of compartmentalized rooms stretching from a “Thinnai” to a backyard where cows presumably named Nandhini grazed many years ago. A particularly avaricious neighbour had decided to encroach into this property through the cunning use of a fence. He simply built it a few meters into this backyard and declared, like the British did with flags, that what lay behind the fence was now his property.


The tenant living in that ancestral house had called me a few months back to complain about this shameless colonialist behavior and asked me for advice on how to deal with it. I sat in my privileged, upper caste ivory tower in Besant Nagar and asked him why he couldn’t just go to the police with a copy of the property deed and ask them to take care of the problem. After all, this is Tamil Nadu, not UP, I added (the desire to score pointless political points at all times with showboaty snark is truly a liberal disease)

He said – “Chaami, naan complaint kudutha yethukkamaattanga. Neengathaan varanum” (Elaborate translation with subtext: The police will not heed my complaint because the encroaching neighbour is upper caste. They will, however listen to you if you grace them with your presence)

Ah yes, of course, the encroacher’s relatively higher position in the caste ladder not only gave him a rather entitled and loose definition of property rights, but also a handicap when it came to access to public services like the police. So I went down there and found our tenant waiting with a handlebar-mustachioed gentleman named Esakki, who introduced himself as the “supreme navigator of all things government” in those parts. All small towns and villages in India typically have one such person, a consummately resourceful & extroverted networker who knows how many marks every local government clerk’s son scored in the engineering entrance exam, and could grease palms with the efficiency of WD40. All for a small fee, of course. Being mostly illiterate in all matters related to property ownership and such, I was happy to let him take the lead and advise us on the best course of action.

The Village AO (Administrative Officer) was our first port of call. The plan was to take our crumbling Akkadian era cuneiform “Patta” to the AO and have him issue a certificate that affirmed the location and dimensions of said property after a database lookup from a relatively less crumbled ledger, which we would then take to the Taluk office in nearby Cheranmadevi and request an official survey that would physically mark the extent of the property, and hopefully convince our encroacher to decommission his marauding fence. “Talk, before Authority. Authority, before Veecharuvaal”, Esakki explained his approach to sorting out disputes. Clearly, talk had failed, so we were going to use government authority to make our case.

The AO was a courteous man who made polite enquiries about whether the IT industry was still a promising career option for his daughter while his minion was conducting an index-search for which ledger was likely to contain the information we were looking for. That was when another elderly gentleman walked in, hesitatingly, holding a sheaf of documents. The AO asked him what he wanted and the old man said – “I was asked to make a missing person complaint to the AO before going to the police, so I’ve got someone to write this complaint letter for me” (Pre-empting any rebuke from the AO for semantic mistakes in the complaint with his frank admission of illiteracy). The AO took the sheaf of documents and perfunctorily glanced at them.

“25 year old daughter went missing last week, didn’t come back home from college, where she was pursuing a Masters degree”, he read out to us. Esakki, always the conversationalist, said something that was a fascinatingly disturbing mix of casteist bigotry and progressive, liberal values. “These SC fellows are always after our girls, but she is 25 years old, major, so there’s nothing we can do. Just wait for a few weeks and they will come back to you and ask for forgiveness. Forgive them and get them married because it doesn’t make sense to fight over these things nowadays”. My head was spinning, because while I expected zero bipartisan collaboration between social conservatism and liberalism, they were getting a registered marriage right in front of my eyes here.

While I was still processing this amazing bit of acrobatic ethical jugglery from Esakki, the AO’s minion had located our information and filled out a certificate that reaffirmed that our property had not, despite the colonial tendencies of the neighbour, shrunk in size over time. We thanked the AO and took a giant diesel powered Share-auto to the Cheranmadevi Taluk office. The place was at the highway crossroads, at the edge of the thin fertile belt of land on the banks of the Tamaraparani and the near Sub-Saharan African brush desert that is most of the rest of Tirunelveli and Tuticorin districts (Puliankulam, south of Cheranmadevi is famously featured in the brilliant film Pariyerum Perumal).

Just outside the office, under a sparse tree, was a scrawny and sprightly young girl who was surrounded by people holding file holders. She was filling forms for them, affixing revenue stamps and directing them to the right desk for the right problem. She charged 20 rupees for every form she filled out and every complaint letter she authored. She looked like a high-schooler and had a schoolgirlish enthusiasm (and delightful Tirunelveli accent) that put her already tense customers at ease while they anticipated the struggles & frustration of dealing with the Byzantine maze that is local government in India.

Esakki introduced us to her (“Chaami Madraslendhu vandhurkaaru. Surveyora paakaanum”) and asked her how long she’d been doing this because he’d never seen her at this office before. She said that it’s been a few weeks and she does this from 9 am to 4 pm after which she has to head home to take care of her 4 year old daughter who will be back home from kindergarten school.

“How old are you?”, Esakki asked, echoing my surprise at how young she looked.

“20”, she said.

“What does your girl’s father do?”, he added.

“He died in a road accident a few weeks ago, that’s why I’m doing this to keep the lights on”.

This was the moment that stayed with me as I was inhaling second hand smoke on Kanyakumari express while it was waiting outside Virudhunagar. What is literacy, really? Is it just the ability to sign your name and recognize numbers? Does it extend to being able to understand government forms? Or use an ATM? This is a state that is objectively among the better places in India from a literacy standpoint. And yet, there are hundreds of people standing outside a Cheranmadevi Taluk office taking the help of a Class VII educated, 20 year old single mother with no social safety net, who was married at 16, to fill forms.