'Write your alphabet neatly and learn the letters. The alphabet makes words, just as bricks make homes, when they are joined together," I explained patiently to 10-year-old Ramesh and his 8-year-old sister Pushpa. "Words are important, because they help us to express ourselves," I added.
They stared at me with round wondering eyes. I was not sure if they understood me, but I was determined not to give up.
It was 1950. Ramesh and Pushpa were the children of Ramsharan, an agricultural labourer on my family's farm. I had taken it upon myself to teach them the English alphabet.
We had received some agricultural land from the government of India, in a village on the outskirts of Sirsa town (in the Indian Punjab, now in Haryana state) as compensation for the land we had lost in Pakistan after partition. We had been a family of grain-traders in the Punjab in Pakistan; I was an accountant by training, but was now entrusted with the responsibility of delivering the first crop. Ramsharan led our farm's labour force of about 20 villagers.
So every day for a year, at 4am I bicycled almost 10 kilometres from our family home in Sirsa to the farm. My packed lunch of rotis, dal and pickles was tied to the bicycle's handle. And over time, I immersed myself in learning everything there was to know about how to grow wheat, vegetables and other crops.
Growing wheat is an exacting art and science. The seedlings must be sowed with precisely the right space between them. The fields must be fertilised at appropriate intervals and watered diligently.
The shoots need 110 to 120 days to mature, so I had some free time. As I had often noticed Ramesh and Pushpa going through my English-language books, and both children showed a keen curiosity by asking me questions, this gave me an idea.
We became friends. Every day after my farming chores at around 11am, the children and I would sit on a charpoy bed under the shade of a giant peepal tree. Then, for a couple of hours I would teach them the alphabet. They were unfamiliar with the script, so I held their tiny hands in my palm and guided their fingers to draw the letters on their slates.
After four months, they had learnt to write some letters, but could not remember all 26 serially. It was a laborious process, but I was impressed with their zeal for learning. Every day they would be ready at 11, with slates and chalks at hand.
Our class grew. As word about the English tutorials spread, other farm labourers also started sending their children. Soon we were 11, seated on two charpoys. A couple of peacocks strode through the fields almost daily, their royal purple plumage delighting the children.
Meanwhile, it was a delight to watch the green wheat shoots spring up, swaying in the breeze under deep blue skies. And we were enthralled when the threshing and harvesting yielded golden mounds of wheat. One third of the crop came to my family as land owners, and two thirds went to Ramsharan and his men. The crop was packed in burlap sacks, loaded onto bullock-carts and ferried to the wholesale market in Sirsa for sale.
I had enjoyed my foray into farming and learnt some nuances about growing wheat and staple vegetable crops such as beans and green chillies. But even more, I had relished the process of teaching the labourers' children.
As the years went by, I moved on to a career in accounting. In 1973, 23 years later, I visited Sirsa. Ramsharan told me that Ramesh and Pushpa had joined a school after my tutorials. Ramesh had become a government clerk; Pushpa was married to a neighbouring farmer's son. Her husband was impressed that she spoke some English.
Today, universal literacy is still an unmet goal. As India marks the first day of its 64th year following Republic Day yesterday, only 74 per cent of adults can read and write. This translates to about 312 million illiterate people in India; no country has more. There is also a significant gender disparity: 82 per cent of men are literate, but only 65 per cent of women.
In the villages, it is still considered wasteful to educate girls. This cripples the national development project, for no nation can progress if its women do not achieve their full potential. Educated women are a pillar of any society.
So, my birthday wish for India is that it achieves 100 per cent literacy by 2025. I am sure Ramesh and Pushpa, wherever they are now, would support their former tutor in this agenda.
Hari Chand Aneja is a 91-year-old former corporate executive who now keeps busy with charity work