My grandmother, whom we call Didi, has one lingering sorrow: she got married at eighteen and could not go to college. A brilliant student, she earned a distinction in Bangla in Class 12 (then called Intermediate) and scored highly in all subjects, including Economics, Hindi, English, Philosophy and Psychology. But a stranger intervened. He was an engineering student and, following the completion of his degree, went to England for training. They kept in touch through letters, and Didi speaks of the days of desperation, the heart’s suppressed glow as she waited for his love letters and crafted her own replies. (The handwritten letters, which have been carefully preserved, are exquisite works of art in their own right, with poetry, politics, and explorations in philosophy.) After he returned from England, having turned down an offer to settle there permanently, they got married. She wanted to go to college; he said yes. Her father got her a college form to fill out. Unfortunately, a patriarchal father-in-law refused.
Didi stayed at home, to care lovingly for a large joint family; but in her heart, she carried an ancient grief. Denied formal college education, she read copiously through the decades, filling up all the rooms in her home with Bangla literature by writers like Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, Rabindranath Tagore, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Shankar, Ashapurna Debi, and Taslima Nasreen. When I was writing a paper at Oxford, on the contested notion of “home” in post/colonial women’s literature which included Bangla bhasha sahitya (Bengali literature), I would often call Didi to discuss my literary analyses, and come away impressed. “Why didn’t you go to college later? Or enroll in long-distance education?” I asked her once. “The children came, then the grandchildren, time flew…maybe I wasn’t good enough…and everyone would have laughed if I joined regular college at 40,” she replied, sadness in her voice.
A vibrant culture of lifelong learning for everyone regardless of gender, social class, religion, and location is very important. Instead, we have a situation where those forced to exit education find it hard to re-enter.
She is not wrong, as India’s education policies are unfortunately not age-sensitive. “Adult education” is aimed at the poor, and focuses on basic literacy. This is of course important in the Indian context, as is building infrastructure like schools and toilets for girls in rural areas. What is also important, though, is a vibrant culture of lifelong learning for everyone regardless of gender, social class, religion, and location, to allow a return to formal education; and an accommodating job market that facilitates re-entry of a diverse group of individuals if they choose. Instead, we have a situation where those forced to exit the education system not only find it difficult to re-enter it later in life, but face ridicule for not being educated enough.
I deeply appreciate how many US universities include “non-traditional” students. One of my students at Rutgers University joined at 45. She had an early marriage and returned to college after her children were settled, to get an undergraduate degree for both personal satisfaction and professional growth.
This semester, I am teaching a course on women’s leadership at the University of Michigan, which looks at how to promote gender equality at all levels of society—government, NGOs, corporate firms, religious institutions, and academia—and there are again a few non-traditional students. I also hold a research affiliation with the university’s Center for the Education of Women, which offers a slew of excellent training programmes, workshops, professional counselling, mentoring and financial aid for non-traditional students from diverse backgrounds, along with providing policy inputs.
Across cultures, women’s intellects and capabilities have historically been coded as inferior. We still do not have a female President in the United States. Women’s representation in education and the professional sphere, including at the highest levels so they can serve as role models for the next generation, is therefore critical everywhere in the world. My grandparents were devoted to each other; as children, Dada-Didi was one inseparable word of love. They were best friends; they giggled together. But just before Dada died, he too acknowledged with deep regret “Tor Didir college-e pora holona (your grandmother could not go to college)”. When I return to India, I wish to devote myself to the cause of women’s education. In loving memory of Dada, my irreplaceable ally. For Didi, whose knowledge of literature equals that of any formal doctoral degree holder. And for DadaDidi, my favorite word, always and forever.