No one ever told Babu that he could say ‘I don’t know‘. Not knowing something meant an acceptance of ignorance. An ignorant person is looked down upon by the people who knew. There is a loss of face and consequently a loss of stature involved in this.
Babu usually gave some stupid or irrelevant answer or he simply lied. The words ‘I don’t know’ simply never occurred to him. He felt that somehow people were born with knowledge or were very intelligent to have acquired it fast. He was the underprivileged who did not know so many things, while nobody was interested in or didn’t give much importance to what he knew.
Babu gorged on books to fight ignorance. He hoarded piles of books ad lost himself among their pages. People, relatives and friends who knew him, remembered him as a bookworm. He read essays and stories in English kept a dictionary by his side and built up a vocabulary in many fields of knowledge. When asked, he could tell the meaning of a word and people called him a walking dictionary. It felt so uplifting to Babu to hear that and he, encouraged by flattery, set himself the lofty goal of being called a walking encyclopaedia.
But ignorance seems to win most of the time. Some people seem to ask the most difficult questions, like where was such and such located in the city? Of course, such questions were trivial. Too mundane. Too small to give his attention to. Why couldn’t they ask something like when such and such thing happened in history and why? He figured that people asked silly questions to belittle him. Why, they would say, you don’t know where it is? You were born in this city? Babu wanted to retort that he had better things to do than to look something up in the city. But the die had been cast. He had been exposed as ignorant. Being shy, fearful and ignorant, he did not socialise much. Consequently, Babu did not have the common knowledge that most people had.
Babu thirsted for knowledge to overcome ignorance and its social consequences. What Babu couldn’t know that the term knowledge meant more than scholarship. Even in the field of higher learning, knowledge is highly specialised and expanded without limit. There too Babu feared that ignorance would not leave him. The more he knew, the more there was to know. Babu knew that it was a losing battle, but he persevered like an ox carrying a load over a mountain. Consequently Babu in his pursuit of knowledge acquired the sensibility of an ox, the sensitivity of a rodent and the perspicacity of a blind man. Precariously balanced on the life raft called knowledge, Babu swam against the current in the sea of ignorance.
Babu began to collect material to justify his ignorance. If he couldn’t fight it, he would do well to come to terms with it. ‘If ignorance is bliss, it is folly to be wise.’ Babu knew very well that he felt like a lord in the power of knowledge and like a fearful rodent in the arms of ignorance. But some people said things in favour of ignorance which might work as a compromise formula in his battle against it. Knowledge, he read, was always accumulative, growing, forever expanding, and therefore it is futile to want to acquire it. No amount of it will reduce the equally growing and expanding ignorance. This, Babu reasoned, was why he couldn’t overcome ignorance with knowledge. He felt better whenever his knowledge was questioned or his ignorance exposed. But no amount of justification freed him from the fear of what people might say. They always asked things he didn’t know, and he couldn’t bring himself up to say it. For the more he read, the more he was expected to know, and the more he felt vulnerable to ignorance. It became a vicious circle for him. Ignorance. Fear. Knowledge. Each spurring on the other in an endless circle.