‘We’re So Used to Literacy That We’ve Forgotten it’s a Privilege’

Kozhikode: At a session at the Kerala Literature Festival on Friday (January 13), author Jerry Pinto urged the young to give up the continuous scroll on social media and instead look to books – and to the people around them – to open their minds.

“When I see a young person spending Rs 180 on a cup of coffee, but then saying Rs 300 is too much to spend on a book and so putting it down again, I want to slap them,” Pinto said. “I want to ask them, ‘What did you feed your brain today? How did you look after your brain today? There’s so much intensity you bring to the body – studying it, exercising it, going to the gym…what did you feed your brain today? Go buy a book! Read something every day.’”

“Because for all of us sitting here, literacy has become a part of our tool kit, something that we’re so used to, we’ve forgotten that it’s a privilege… Take your privilege and make it a gift. Read.”

Pinto was in conversation with Professor Meena T. Pillai from the Institute of English, University of Kerala, about his book The Education of Yuri. The book traces the life of Yuri Fonseca, a teenager in 1980s Bombay, as he navigates a world of reading, studying, friendship and connection.

Yuri’s childhood – much like his own, Pinto argued – was set in a time when growing up looked very different. And that explains something about the way the world looks today.

“It was a pre-media time. There was media, but television was black and white and for four hours a day. There was only one channel, and it was run by the government. We did a lot more reading than you did, than you will ever do – simply because we had no internet, no videos, no YouTube. I think in that world, it was possible to cut yourself off from certain grim realities around you, and because [today] it is not possible, we have developed a defensive posturing of hate. We hate because we fear. I think there is not much difference between hate and fear.”

“I think when you feel fear, you feel vulnerable, you feel small. And then you turn that into hate, and you feel big, and triumphant, because now you have a positive emotion to attack with. In the 1980s, there was less manifestation of hatred. So our belief – our quixotic and foolish belief – was that we have had one experiment with fascism and the destruction of democracy in 1977, and it was over. And we would never do it again. We would value all the things that democracy stood for, and we would stand by them.”

Yuri was 10 when the Emergency happened; for him, it was someone else’s problem. And because of the belief of the time, it was not something he worried about once it was over. “It was such a temptation to try and make Yuri prescient, to make him know what was coming in the future. But he didn’t. So for him, the Emergency was like a bad dream,” Pinto said, when Pillai asked whether young Yuri, who lived through the Emergency, was affected by it in the ways that the politics of today may affect the young.

What is the answer to this today, when a politics of hate and polarisation can’t be tucked away like a bad dream? “Democracy is only as safe,” Pinto believes, “as your ability to listen to an opposing opinion with respect. So when you are even confronted by someone on the internet who says something you despise, try to be respectful of their opinions, respectful in your engagement with them. Because that strengthens the root of democracy more than anything else.”

“Try to expand the circle of your friends to include people who are not like you,” Pinto continued. “Because being heterogenous is sincerely important.”

“We need to confront the fact that we are afraid. Because if we say, ‘Yes I am afraid,’ we start from the position of saying, ‘I am afraid but I don’t want to be afraid. Let me know you, so I do not fear you, and by not fearing you I will be able to live with you.’ But first is the acknowledgment that with all our variety, comes anxiety, and that anxiety is easy to convert into hatred.”

Opening yourself up to the world around you, Pinto believes, comes both from reading and from speaking to everyone you can. And if we truly want to build a world based on friendship rather than hatred, that is essential.

“Literature, at the end of the day, is an invitation to the banquet of humanity. It’s an invitation to seeing how someone else lives, what someone else thinks. And every book that you buy, stains you. Challenges you, expands you, makes you a different person. And in that difference, that change, is the deep enrichment soul. And a rich soul is just a generous, happy, giving soul. The rest of it just flows.”

Featured image: Jerry Pinto speaking at the Kerala Literature Festival.

This article was first published on The Wire.