International Conference on Literacy through Literature

Keynote Address by Dr. Shashi Tharoor

Hon’ble Minister of State for HRD

New Delhi, 7th February 2014


Ms. Nilima Sinha, Ms. Manorama Jafa, distinguished ladies on the podium and in the audience, authors, illustrators, book lovers, friends,

Apologies for being unable to be part of the conference yesterday. At the first glance, the title of the conference, ‘Literacy through Literature’ seems to be a contradiction in itself because you need to be literate in the first place to be even able to read literature. But when I think back to my own infancy, I realise that my love for literature began with my mother reading out stories to me. My mother often jokes that as a child I might have taken to reading fervently at an early age because she read them out so badly that I just had to read the same stories by myself. As a consequence, my first incentive for reading was curiosity engendered by the fables that I heard. 

This primarily oral tradition of reading out or telling stories from memory to young children is one of the oldest cultural traits of humanity. India, itself, has always had a rich oral tradition of storytelling which in modern times has acquired myriad manifestations such as folk tales, street plays, films (Bollywood) and documentaries. Indian grandmothers are famous for the tales they tell from the epics! Through the evocative, delightful, and often thought-provoking images and ideas created by these traditions of stories, even the pre-literate in our country have always had a flavour for literature. In order to enhance their interest in books or motivate them to acquire literacy, it only remains a matter of igniting in them an interest for reading as a way of gaining greater access to the world of the imagination and the intellect. For instance, some decades ago, merely the ability to sign your name and make sense of simple instructions was the critical difference between being able to draw any benefit from the opportunities available, and being left behind. The quest for empowerment has been an important catalyst in motivating previous generations to learn to read and write. It has helped leverage pre-literacy created by our oral traditions and transform it to a higher literacy rate today. Today, the ability of literacy to make or break individual destinies is greater than ever before. And yet, even in these materialistic times, the ability of literature to unlock the human potential remains a crucial indicator of our collective achievements as a sentient, evolved species.

But the objective of literacy is not limited to the fundamentals of signing your name, and knowing which bus goes where. It is imperative to progress beyond the basics of reading street signs and knowing the alphabet of a language. Literature is one way to give the literate exposure to ideas that are both new, and timeless. It keeps them reading and helps them solidify their urge to be fully literate. Reading is unique in the sense that it is an activity that reinforces itself since the pleasure of reading stimulates interest and creates an incentive to read more. It is a self-renewing, self-regenerating activity. And with each book, the reader unravels new ideas within one subject, or makes a leap to new subjects. Of course as a writer, I have a selfish interest in promoting reading as it means a larger audience for the books I write, and it also is a greater encouragement for me to write more. But more significantly, reading is important for the reason that even the literate often cease to remain literate because they stop reading, and literature can offer the hook that keeps them interested. In that sense, the act of reading is nothing less than an act of affirmation of being alive. As central to our self-conception as other fundamental acts such as love and hope. 

To me, as I wrote in my introduction to ‘Bookless in Baghdad’ books are like the toddy tapper’s hatchet, striking through the rough husk that enshrouds our minds to tap into the exhilaration that ferments within. And it’s not just books in the conventional sense, with black letters on white pages that stimulate the mind and fire our imaginations. There is a wealth of different and new kinds of exciting formats for engaging, exciting and retaining young readers that are often overlooked. For instance comics books that are often sneered at, offer an inestimable advantage in stimulating reading because of their use of simple and easy to comprehend language, familiar contexts, and illustrations that help understand the meaning of unfamiliar words. And not every comic book is about the adventures of Archie or Betty in Riverdale.Amar Chitra KathaJataka Talesand comics inspired from our country’s epics have been grossly underestimated in terms of their potential in augmenting efforts to promote reading, and enhancing the quality of literacy. Even as an adult, when learning French, I chose to reread Asterix and Tintin, comics of my childhood in order to improve my French and get a lively feel for idiomatic and expressive language. Besides comics, formats such as picture books, and graphics novels, are innovative ways to expand the options available for advancing the literacy agenda. After all a picture says a thousand words, so why not use their power to captivate and engage for attracting more people to the knowledge and rich expression in good writing.

The proliferation of new materials is equally important to safeguard the literacy of those who are forced to drop out of the system due to circumstances rather than choice. In particular, the myriad manifestations of books are vital in sustaining efforts for the education of women. For young girls who do not have access to class rooms after a certain age, but have learnt the fundamentals of reading and writing, books are a vital instrument for preserving and advancing their ability to continue to be literate. Scholarly studies and research projects have established what common sense might already have told us: that if you educate a boy, you educate a person, but if you educate a girl, you educate a family and benefit an entire community. The evidence is striking. Increased schooling of mothers has a measureable impact on the health of their children, on the future schooling of the child, and on the child’s adult productivity. The children of educated mothers consistently out-perform children with educated fathers and illiterate mothers. Given that they spend most of their time with their mothers, this is hardly surprising.

The Government of India has designed a literacy programme called Saakshar Bharat that takes cognisance of the power of literacy in promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women, effective tools to combat poverty and stimulate development to promote the values of humanity and peace.

Apart from gender equality, in this new age of digital literacy, computers must also be seen as source for promoting literacy through literature. There is a fashionable lament that as children are spending increasingly longer hours before computer screens, they have less time for many other things, and are driving kids away from reading books. On the contrary, by learning how to navigate a computer, accessing the Internet, studying online, and even playing computer games, children are involved in the process of reading. While I am not a technology determinist, the multiplier effect of computers cannot be ignored. Literature can benefit from the information age, and communication networks facilitated by the Internet and computers. It is much easier to transmit, share, and even translate stories and the written word for readers of different ages and capabilities. With the development of low cost tablets, and digital formats for books, a simple hand-held computing device can serve as a thousand books in one. From being bastions of elitist privilege, the Universities and libraries of the world have themselves evolved, and today the digital revolution has ensured an ever growing democratisation of knowledge. As for the argument that e-books are expensive and unaffordable, many of the outstanding classics of literature that we have enjoyed  are easily available as free downloads today, as copyrights, in various countries, on such published works expire 60 to 75 years after the author has passed away. Simultaneously, the advent of Creative Commons has transformed the dissemination of knowledge, making new works more accessible.

This digitisation and democratisation of reading augurs well for literacy in India, with its multitude of languages and wealth of literature present in those languages. Since Independence, we have made monumental progress in education and our literacy rate has grown to about 74 per cent. Though true literacy for me will only be achieved when every child in India will have the confidence and ability to read any good book, with full comprehension and in a language of their choice. Good luck for your discussions and deliberations on this important topic, and I wish you all an enriching and rewarding conference.

Thank you, and Jai Hind!