The once ubiquitous magazine Woman’s Era used to have a regular column called “How I Met My Husband”. It’s the kind of column that as a journalist I now recognise is a winner—you can run it for decades because everyone has a story that they feel is unique. Much like Shinie Antony wrote, hilariously, about everyone’s Omicron story on Moneycontrol.com: “‘For me,’ they start with a nostalgic sigh, ‘it happened like this.’ From the person they suspect they got it from to the person they hope to give it to, nothing is left out of this hastily compiled memoir.”
One origin story People Like Us don’t tell too often, though? That’s the story of How I Met My Education.
I will tell you why I started thinking about mine. An acquaintance referred to me as an educated woman. Though it was said with no malicious intention at all, it left me shaken. I felt like the prince in the Bugs Bunny version of Hansel And Gretel who briefly becomes a stuck record. Hansel. Hansel. An educated woman. An educated woman. Of course, I know in microscopic detail the millions of ways in which women do not get education in India. The debate supposedly about the hijab led to so many conversations this week that if I hadn’t known how hard it was for a girl to get an education in India, I would have gotten a crash course anyway. “We know many girls who were denied education after they were sexually assaulted or because they were married. Because now they know about sex and can tell the other girls,” a feminist activist told me with contained bitterness. I am reasonably immersed in the details of this daily violence and crushing of opportunities, or so I thought.
My acquaintance’s “educated woman” comment made clear that all these years one thing I had taken for granted was the fact of my getting an education. Until now I have taken for granted the fact of my getting an education in a college that I loved, a postgraduate education in a college I wanted, for training in a field that I loved and would proceed to love for the next 20 years. When I was a bit calmer, I wanted to ask my acquaintance if he has ever had the same moment of defamiliarisation where he questioned how he got the opportunities for a fine education.
Because it was never the question of my writing class XII exams and getting into a college in Bengaluru. Or writing the admission test and getting into journalism college later.
Here is the story of my education. My family is Syrian Christian. Access to education is assumed as our caste privilege. I don’t know about my paternal grandparents’ education but they worked in Malaysia and paid for my father to go to a local boarding school and then to medical college. My maternal grandparents couldn’t study past school but my grandmother came from a family of teachers. All the children were sent to boarding school while my grandparents worked in Karnataka. My grandmother’s sister eventually became the headmistress of a school. I grew up around the remnants of my grandfather’s (late) older brother’s library—Leo Tolstoy, Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre. After his retirement, my grandfather became a prolific writer of pulpy fiction and non-fiction. He taught me to use a dictionary when I was barely big enough to carry one. I had access to three or four libraries and hundreds of his acceptance and rejection letters.
There were no schools in rural Oman (where my parents were working) but I had grandparents in Bengaluru when it was time for class I. We spoke Malayalam at home but my mother taught me enough English to take for granted that when I first went to school at age six in Bengaluru, no one worried that I would have a difficult time. As a teenager, I lived with my parents for a few years in the Middle East and I suddenly had the benefit of highly interested parents who could solve my math problems in their head and could tell me how to draw for biology class and still understand why I was failing math in class XI.
My mother was a medal-winning student of botany with deep wells of geeky interests, geeky enough that she thought it was normal when I brought individual volumes of encyclopaedias home from the dusty library of the local Malayali association. My mother told me how to fix the ending of the short story that won me my first writing fee. When I moved to Bengaluru, I had older neighbours and friends who told me which colleges to apply to. I had money to pay for the admission forms. And the clothes to reasonably fit in. My college was only 45 minutes away by bus. If the roads were flooded, I could still somehow walk home. I occasionally took autorickshaws. It wasn’t like the mid-2000s, when old colleges in Bengaluru, for the first time in their existence, got applications from parts of the city newly connected by the Metro.
I had all this. Nevertheless, when it came to applying for my postgraduation, I was amazed at the situation at a friend’s house. We went to college together and as we were leaving her house, her grandmother would check if she had filled the forms, which she would then check and take to the post office. It boggled the mind that people knew how to apply for foreign universities. I was not a good student and was terrorised by the vagueness of the demands of American and British universities. I knew enough to know it was code but not how to crack it. My parents didn’t have to pick between my brother’s and my education. I didn’t have to apply for a loan. In journalism school in Pune, where there was massive sexism and sexual harassment, I survived because I was already a politicised woman. When, at my admission interview, the director of my college told me with a smirk I didn’t write that well, I laughed at him. My Catholic women’s college phalanx of teachers had not exactly been indulgent and they had taught me to write. Among them were rising academics and novelists and researchers and serious women invested in pedagogy and politics and art. A whole universe that expected me to do well, work hard, make something of myself slogged to produce my education. A universe that expected me to become an educated woman. Tujhse na ho paayega, beta (you won’t be able to do it, kid) was not going to work on me. It was too late.
The story of how the vast majority of this nation met their education is one of tears and uncertainty and compromise and dissatisfaction and cruelty. Children and teenagers do it when they do—without the help of families who have the time or resources to enrich their education. We know this. As statistics. This is the distillation of our privilege. But we need to ask ourselves, all of us reading and writing here, what are the particular details of how we became educated men and educated women? What are the millions of details? And when we remember the million details, can we with any conscience participate in adding even a tiny detail that leads to the derailing of the education of any girl in this country? Even the tiniest scrap of a barrier?
Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger and author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories.