Sunday, July 19, 2015

Two illiterate nurses - I

So far, the agencies had been sending me nurses who had gone to school but had dropped out before completing Std. X. This time, they sent me a nurse who had never been to school and didn't know how to read and write although she could speak two languages ( her native tongue which was Malayalam and Tamil.). It was fascinating to watch her methods to negotiate a world which requires some literacy at various times.

She didn't know how to tell the time by looking at a clock. She could tell the hour from the clock (eg, one o' clock) but she couldn't tell the in-between times (eg. 1 : 15). But she was the most punctual of all the nurses, getting up at exactly six in the morning without ever glancing at the clock. She woke up half an hour early couple of times but the darkness must have told her the time  was not quite right. She looked carefully at the clock for a few minutes, thought that something about the positions of the needles didn't look ok and went back to sleep. She got up half an hour later and knew without looking at the clock and knew it was the right time.

Since the nurse could not read, she could not identify the names that were stored on her mobile phone. She could only redial the last number that she had dialed. If she had to call someone else or a new number had to be stored, she had to tell somebody to  do it. If she wanted to call her daughter early in the morning, she would tell Jaya the previous night to pick out the correct  number so that she just has to press it in the morning.

She was confident of travelling anywhere within Kerala and Tamil Nadu since she knew the local languages. You just had to make her board the correct bus. Before boarding the bus, she will ask Jaya to select in her mobile the number of the person who is waiting for her. After that she was only in contact with that person. It was too risky to ask a stranger to change the number since she couldn't be sure that it was the right number.

Once there was a minor dispute about a date. She said that she  had joined duty on 5th January with which we agreed.  But she insisted that it was a Tuesday and we said that it was a Monday . Jaya began to show her the calender but then realised that it was useless since she couldn't read. There didn't seem to be a way to show her what day it was so we had no option but to accept her statement.

When she had to keep a book in the bookstand for me to read, she would not be sure whether the book was upside down or which was its front cover. She would take a minute or two to determine the correct orientation from the pictures on the  front and back covers.

Her major passtime was watching TV serials. She was not interested in watching anything else, not even movies. She used to be downcast on weekends because serials are telecast only on weekdays. She would watch a particular Malayalam channel for most of the day which would include repeat telecasts of serials which she had already watched. Even if she was watching the same episode for the third time during the day she would watch it with wide-eyed interest. It used to remind me of a Wodehouse description in A Damsel in Distress:
These all belonged to the class which will gather round and watch silently while a motorist mends a tyre.  They are not impatient.  They do not call for rapid and continuous action. A mere hole in the ground, which of all sights is perhaps the least vivid and dramatic, is enough to grip their attention for hours at a time.  
(Come to think of it, I may not be too different. My favorite movie is Sholay which I would have watched  dozens of times. I still watch it every time it comes on TV with the same level of interest that I had when I first saw it almost 40 years ago. There is no accounting for human tastes.)

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