Study Guide

Homeless Bird Literature and Writing

By Gloria Whelan

Literature and Writing

When I was a small girl, he would sometimes let me stand beside him. I watched as the spoken words were written down to become like caged birds, caught forever by my clever baap. (1.2)

Watching her father work as a scribe, Koly imagines what the letters are saying and doing. Check out how she calls them "caged birds" here, which is very similar to how she refers to herself as a homeless bird later on.

The only time my sassur seemed to come alive was when he had a book in his hand. (4.50)

Mr. Mehta gets pretty down sometimes, but a book can always cheer him up. Koly stresses the importance of reading to us through her father-in-law, who uses poetry to escape the sad times of his own life. Words bring him comfort in a way no human can.

One of Hari's schoolbooks still lay on the trunk. No one touched the book, and day by day the dust grew on it. Though I could not read, I sometimes opened the book and looked at the words. They were words that Hari had known. (4.26)

Let's face it: Koly never gets to know Hari very well. This doesn't mean she doesn't treasure his book, though. Part of this is because he loved to read them, but she also is fascinated by what they contain—she wants their mysteries and tales can be unlocked to her.

For each letter he drew a picture of some creature, a hawk or a pig, and printed its name below the letter. When I had all the letters, he drew a railway. The engine pulled several words, so that now I had a sentence. Page by page I learned the secrets in the book. (4.34)

When Koly learns to read, she pairs pictures with words. Mr. Mehta shows her the small parts that make up the sentence before revealing the whole meaning. The way Koly describes language helps us understand how she pieces things together in her mind, one picture at a time.

In order to read the books, I had to take them with me, hidden in my sari, when I went to wash the clothes in the river. I hurried to finish the washing so I would have a little time with my book. (4.35)

Koly's so invested in reading that she sneaks her book underneath her clothes so she can read while down at the river. Remember that Mrs. Mehta would be furious if she found out about Koly's reading, so Koly risks a good tongue-lashing in reading. That's how important it is to her.

Sass was suspicious of books, treating them as if they were scorpions and might sting her. From then on if she caught me reading, she would call me lazy and set me to a task or send me off to the village on an errand. But no matter what Sass thought, the secrets in the books were now mine, and try as she might, she could not snatch them away. (4.54)

Notice that word "suspicious" in this passage. It's telling that Mrs. Mehta doesn't know how to read nor does she trust it, while for Koly, reading is almost like a treasure hunt. It says a lot about these two characters' relationships to the world they live in.

"Koly, if only I had listened to you and learned to read, I could know some of what comes up on the screen. There are words in every language and from everywhere. My baap was wrong to dislike those machines. They are magic." (7.4)

Chandra regrets not learning how to read like Koly. At first she thinks she won't need the skill since she'll be taking care of the house like a good wife, but pretty soon she realizes that everyone—even stay at home moms—can benefit from reading.

"How could I read when I was working on the land from the time I was five years old? Besides, there is no one in my family who reads. Who would teach me?" (9.18)

Raji gets embarrassed when Koly points out that he can't read because he wishes he could. He gets defensive about the whole thing because he's never had the opportunity to learn the skills that Koly already has.

His favorite poems were those that described the countryside, poems about being out early when the morning light is thin and pale, and about hearing the birds' songs. (9.24)

Poetry becomes a way for Raji and Koly to communicate with each other. After she teaches him how to read, he starts listening and reading her Tagore poems by himself and discovers their beauty.

"I must have the first sari Koly embroiders in her new home. You will give her a length of king's muslin to take with her." She smiled at me. "Koly, will you find something for the border in one of Tagore's poems?" (11.66)

Mrs. Devi wants Koly to embroider something from her favorite author, Tagore. This is a chance for Koly to show off her mad sewing skills and her love of poetry. She gets to use her two loves at the same time, and she couldn't be more excited.

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