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how ashraf bi learnt to write

how ashraf bi learnt to write

at my age, one likes to dwell in the past. so here is a story from the first part of nineteenth century as told by herself - (note - abbreviated version)

it had long been a tradition in my family to teach the girls to read - but to teach them to write was strictly forbidden. the girls were taught only to read the arabic of quran  and to read a bit of urdu so that they could gain some knowledge of their faith and learn the rules of prayer and fasting.

my mother fell ill when i was just seven or eight. she could not teach me to read but she was daughter of a marsiya khwan and could recite mujre salam. she taught me from memory these poems. but she died when i was still young.

 during muharram a majlis was held every day separately for men and women  someone read from the book in these which was why i was keen to learn to read urdu. i was dying to learn urdu but there was no woman to teach me. all the ladies in my family knew how to read urdu but would not teach me as they thought it was not worth it to waste time on me.

late one night it occurred to me that if i had a mujra or a salam, i could myself figure out the words and begin to read. afterall i already knew the alphabets. i sent my maid to all my friends asking for some salam or mujra whic, i said i will copy and return.

but who was there to copy them for me? i told my grandmother to get me some paper so that i could get them copied by my uncle. she got the paper for me but what was i do to copy it. it would have been disastrous for me if anyone was even to suspect me of writing. i had no mother to shield me and writing was strictly forbidden to girls. where could i hide to copy it. in the end i decided that at noon when every one was resting, i would make some ink from the tawa and start copying. got some twigs from the broom. then i went up to the roof pretending that i was going to rest there.

excitedly i started to copy out words. i could not understand what i was writing. i did not have the sense to know that one cannot learn to read without a teacher. i believed that, as with other skills, i would learn by imitating others. a son of grandmother' sister taught her three pages from his school book. he was sent away to study in delhi and the lessons ceased.

i started to read the book on my own. when i recognized a familiar letter, i would put them together. slowly in this piecemeal fashion i would figure out the whole word and read on. i also memorized what i read. in this fashion i read the whole book. the i read other books and finally the nujre and salam i had copied.

no one had as yet known my secret. after my uncle left and joined father in gwalior, the fact that i could write became known.  after uncle had gone, i began to write openly. no one objected. on the contrary my skill was considered to be a novelty. whenever women wanted to write a letter they would come to me. i gladly did any which way i could. i understood only one tenth of what i was told.

when the mutiny was there, all the messages ceased for eighteen months. when some peace returned, my grandmother sent a letter, got written by her brother, to father through a messenger. i also wrote a letter and sent it through him.

my father was delighted when he read my letter and then i wrote him the whole story how i learnt to write. my uncle never forgave me for this.

(sources of indian traditions - ed. mcdermott et al. penguin books pp 90-93)


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