Lesson 39 on the Right to Books
One of my groups at Mandy’s school was composed of six girls from the Punjab. They loved the stories we read in class and discussed them heatedly. They were very hot on moral issues, and eagerly related the books we read to what they had seen in the latest Bollywood movies.
I used to love the Monday morning conversations between them and Josephine (an Afro-Caribbean pupil often banished to my room for bad behaviour). The group used to practise their English by describing the plot of whatever film they had seen at the weekend.
“So she shamed her family then?”
“No, but the village thought she had. She was shunned!” (We had learnt “shunned” very quickly. Shunning and shaming seemed to crop up a lot in Bollywood conversations).
“So that was when she was thrown down the well?”
“No, that was afterwards. When her cousin betrayed her!”
“The one whose husband thought she had brought shame on him?”
“No! The other one, the one who got leprosy!”
In the course of one of these discussions, it emerged that the plot was a reworking of a classic novel and I mentioned that I had borrowed the book from the library. None of the girls knew about the local library, so I explained how they could borrow books there for free. In the end we decided on a trip there, so that they could join.
They were full of enthusiasm when they saw the range of books available to borrow. Everything went well, until we collected the forms to sign up. We took them to the desk, but the jobsworth there refused to accept them.
“They have to get their fathers’ signatures,” she insisted.
“But it doesn’t say that on the form” I protested. “It just says an adult ratepayer. I’m an adult ratepayer!”
“No, it has to be their father!”
I was ready to go into battle, but one of the girls tugged my arm and whispered in embarrassment, “Come away , Miss! Don’t bother!”
It suddenly dawned me that the bitch behind the desk simply didn’t want them to join because they were Asian and she knew very well that a father’s signature might be difficult to get. Many of the fathers couldn’t write, others were reluctant to sign official forms they didn’t understand.
I was still burning with fury, when we got back to my office and to Josephine, serving out her banishment there. She curled her lip scornfully, when she heard the tale from the others.
“Give me the forms,” she said. “I’ll sign them!”
The group looked aghast. It was an obvious solution to their problem, but one which gave rise to a real-life moral dilemma. This was forgery and deceit. What if their fathers did not want them to join? A couple of girls guessed any request would be denied. What did they need with books? They had plenty to do at home already, helping their mothers.
They thought of other ways they could get round the signature problem, for instance by getting one girl with parental permission to pass on the books to others, or even waiting till they were old enough to join on their own.
Josephine disdained such weakness. For her it was straightforward. She knew survival entailed fierce guerrilla warfare with authority.
That’s how she came to be sitting in my office, scowling at the injustice of the world.