A Childhood Withou​​​t the English Language

Between the end of a heartbeat and start of another – a thousand thoughts pass my mind. Every thought desires to come alive in the form of words, my words. This hunger has always been a deep-seated part of me.

My life is a journey where I am collecting words like souvenirs, stealing sentences, seizing expressions. So maybe one day, I feel equipped enough to let my thoughts be expressed freely.

When I was 5 or 6, one day my father got an old man home. He was dark skinned and his face like a wrinkled shirt, creased fingers but his eyes, I remember them, as very sharp. He wore a white kurta and a white dhoti for all those years I can recall. His dhoti wrapped around and between his legs, tucked at the back.

Papa asked us, my brother and me, to call him “Guruji”– he’d come to teach us Sanskrit. Every day at 4 pm, after school and a small nap, our mother would dress us up, comb our hair and send us to this small shop, about 50 steps away from our house, located in a Mohalla [an unorganized colony]. Guruji had to step up his table, two shelves stacked with old brown and orange books behind his chair and there were two more chairs across the table for two of us. We would enter and say“Namaste Guruji” in sync, religiously every single day.

It was an hour-long class, and as kids, 60 minutes was a lot of time to be expected to sit at one place. Initially, we would learn Sanskrit Shlokas and Stotram all the days of the week. Later, we haggled it to alternate days, where the days we were not reciting Sanskrit verses in our loud high-pitched voices, we were sitting silently listening to stories guruji would tell us. We would interrupt him with several questions, and he would always get back to each question and answer it eventually. I was awed by his presence. He was our quintessential hero – who would always know what to say, and I was amazed at how he would pronounce a certain word with his deep heavy old voice and his intense vocabulary of Hindi and Sanskrit.

I remember how he would make us repeat the same sentence for an entire hour sometimes or he’d make us write them a hundred times when we weren’t saying it properly, to make sure we knew it was important to pronounce it right.

One of the days, after our Sanskrit class, Papa told us to start reading dictionary, a small-sized tethering book made of brown pages filled with so many words in it. My parents never spoke a word of English, for they weren’t educated in high profile institutions but my father would always tell us how things change when you speak in English. It was only a decade later or more that I grasped what he meant – and how you weren’t valued for your content, your understanding but rather judged on one string – medium of communication. 

So, imagine I was a little girl, with boy-cut hair, wearing a red top beige skirt, and a front tooth missing – sitting in my father’s office with this book named Thesaurus [a word I couldn’t say, nobody around me could either]. Papa said you can begin to learn, by writing 10 words in your notebook every day. The good thing was – he never followed up, so it was no pressure.

I particularly remember how I tried to learn the spelling of “beautiful” and found it to be the most difficult spelling to remember. I didn’t understand the work of ‘a’ in the word. This longing to know the English language and to be able to speak it well, grew in me – so every time I am home alone – which was quite often – my brother left for boarding school, my parents were quite a pair of travellers – I’d just sit in front of the TV and hear celebrities talk so fluently in English, during interviews. I’d ask myself if I would ever be able to speak like that.

“they are given scripts of what to say” I’d console myself, and then wonder “how do they remember all of it so well?” and feel lost at “would I ever be able to speak like that?”

You know, those years of childhood when you start visiting your friend’s places – so I once visited a friend’s house, I was in fifth grade now. “Did you finish your lunch?” my friend’s mother asked her in English. I started to feel embarrassed about my mother coming to school parent-teacher meet because she didn’t speak in English.

For the longest time, I blamed my parents and my home environment for my wrong grammar. As a kid, I imagined myself parenting my kids in complete English because I had weird notions about how English made you smarter. I didn’t want my kids to face what I was facing. It is now I understand that English only makes you look “smarter”, it doesn’t really make you smarter.

My school, being English-medium, had a strange rule. When I was in middle school – we were expected to speak English at all times at school. If we were caught doing otherwise – our teachers would catch us and paint a black thick dot on the cheek by a permanent marker as a punishment. Schools do have their astounding ways of scarring kids for life.

So this one time, a new English teacher joined the school and she was our class teacher. I was 10 or 11 years old when this happened to me. This new teacher was late to the class, and the class had turned hysterical – so when she entered, she asked the monitor to write the names of students who were talking, on the board. He put my name there – even though, I used to be one of the quietest kids, which made me really angry. Injustice was always intolerable for me. So, I started to defend myself, in front of the teacher. As I began to utter a few words, I fumbled at first, I could feel my face boiling and turn hot – and in the middle of it, I said – “I wasn’t talking ma’am, I was take outingmy notebook” and before I could speak anymore – the teacher came closer to my desk, like Yoshimitsu takes out his sword in Tekken, she took her marker out.

I can never forget how this moment broke me as a kid – when she removed the cap of her marker – she imitated my wrong English and frightened voice – she mocked my words “take outing” and put a black mark on my face. Now when I look back, she could have corrected me, instead of putting me down. That black mark stayed as a scar on my confidence for a long time.

I was slowly crawling my way up, out of the well, and it all felt like a great fall back into the pit. I really thought I would never be able to speak in English again. On the outside, I had given up, however, my inner curiosity helped me, it was still catching on the new synonyms and phrases – always taking mental notes.

I continued to learn Sanskrit for many years. I am kanthasth or well-versed in many shlokas – and what I thought would add up to nothing in my life that much, I’d credit Sanskrit for turning me around from a slow kid to a confident intelligent kid. It is calming to sit every day, for a while with eyes shut and recite my stotram. That is undoubtedly the meaningful time of my day.

Such thoughts, memories – about a thousand such as these emerge inside me, and then pass, like ripples formed by a broken pebble and then sinking back from river surface.

As a child, you are not aware of how such experiences can mould you as an adult. Children are the wet mud, freshly doughed – it is up to the society to give them any shape or form. I cannot say or put a finger on one thing that caused or fed my belief that English is more important – I think it was everything. Pride pinned in the sarees of my school teachers, my parents’ nervousness when we entered a fancy hotel, my disappointment with myself for not being able to follow the English subtitles in a movie when my cousins could, feeling of shame when I didn’t know lyrics of English songs by heart.

Living in South India helped me understand that every language has its own charm. I write in English because I think in English. I still take mental notes every time I hear a new way of saying something. I’m still learning as a writer and moreover, I’m learning as a thinker and how, to be honest with myself and as a result of that – I am growing to be honest with my readers.

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