Read to them, the illiterate

Illiteracy is the inability to read or write simple sentences in any language. It exists all around us, in Nepal and across Asia and the world. It’s pervasive, more than we imagine.

Often, however, the illiterate are too shy to admit it. They survive by covering it up, by pretending.

I recently heard about a man from a working-class family who wrote well in school and who, when encouraged by others, pursued his talent and began publishing stories. Today, he’s an acclaimed writer.

As a boy he often shared what he wrote with his father, a hard working man who strived to keep him in school and the family fed, clothed and housed, barely. The father’s work was manual drudgery. The salary was low. He left home early each day, and returned late and exhausted each evening. After dinner he’d retire early, then awake the next morning and do it all over again. Day after day, year in, year out. He had neither the time nor the energy for reading. So, whenever his son shared a story with him, the father usually glanced at it before setting it aside without comment. It hurt the young writer to receive no praise nor paternal acknowledgment of his talent, his passion, his writing. But, he persevered and eventually made writing his career.

The rest of his story tells something about each of us and how we perceive the world and its inequities, our assumptions and failings and, not least, how we deal with them.
After his father died the son went through his papers — legal documents, official contracts and the like. And there he discovered the truth. Each document requiring a signature was marked with an ‘X’. His father was illiterate, but he never let on and the son never guessed.

In retrospect, too late, the now acclaimed writer says that had he known he would have taken the time to read aloud to his father... To share the joy of writing and of creativity and learning.

There’s a popular movie on a similar theme. ‘The Reader’ is about reading and how we sometimes misunderstand others, even those closest to us. It’s a romantic drama set in post-World War II Germany. A teenager (‘Michael’, played by Ralph Fiennes) has an illicit affair with a passionate, elusive older woman (‘Hanna’, played by Kate Winslet). In many of the movie’s early scenes Michael is seen reading to Hanna, aloud. Hanna is enthralled by her lover’s youthful vivacity and literary knowledge and charmed by the stories he reads - Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’, Mark Twain’s ‘Huck Finn’, Chekhov’s ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’, and others.

One day Hanna disappears, leaving Michael confused and heartbroken. He never expects to see her again. In time he goes on to study law and is assigned to attend post-war Nazi war crime trials. And there is Hanna, a defendant accused and ultimately convicted of atrocities.

Now as one generation comes to terms with the sins of another, Michael is visibly stunned and fundamentally shaken. He watches in silence the courtroom drama, soon realizing that Hanna’s conviction is based on a fiction - a belief that the most incriminating document presented by the prosecution is her writing. She doesn’t deny it, and is sent to prison.

Eventually Michael and Hanna meet again (at a distance), and Michael begins sending her books to read in her cell. Meanwhile he goes on with life, marries, has a daughter, divorces, and - flash forward - eventually, years later, on the eve of Hanna’s release, tells his adult daughter the story of he and Hanna, and what took him so long to fully understand. Then, in a dramatic conclusion, we learn a startling truth about literacy/illiteracy and the human spirit.
Do we ever know the full inner lives of those we love? Do we sometimes ‘read’ into those lives false assumptions and figments of our imagination? Do you sometimes wonder “If I had only known...”?
Be a Reader.

Don Messerschmidt is a contributing editor to ‘ECS Nepal’ magazine, and can be contacted at ‘The Reader’ is a recommended film. See more about it on the Internet at