For those of you who know and the rest who assume that English is the language in which I respond to in my sleep, wakefulness and dreams, let me share a little secret with you today. I was not exposed to English in school for the first couple of years of my life.
My first school was in the middle of an apple orchard in the Kashmir valley. Frankly, I remember nothing of it, except that I was four-ish and a school uniform was an extremely romantic idea that only my privileged sister could own. In late mornings, my guardian angel Bahadur flung me over his shoulders and walked down a pebbled road winding to a lovely patch of sunshine. There would be some other little red cheeked children in fleece and flannel clothes like me soaking in the sun and running around with apples, cherries and walnuts in their pockets. On our uphill walk home, and Bahadur always insisted that I walked this leg, we would collect pebbles and maple leaves. I had no uniform. I don’t recall if I had books. The Kendriya Vidyalaya that my sister attended was a distant dream that unfortunately could not come true because my family relocated from the valley.
For the next couple of months, our home went through a major upheaval and a series of uncertainties. My Baba left us for a tenure in Tehri, Uttarkashi where there were no schools. My mom stay put in Calcutta with my sister and me. My sister was sent to a neighbourhood school in Calcutta and I was pulled out of the school education system! Yes, you heard it right! For 8 months, I was not registered anywhere. A part of it was because I had taken seriously ill in those 8 months and was too frail to take any physical strain. A severe case of encephalitis and jaundice had taken its toll on my tiny frame.
It was only in the summers of 1980 when my Baba gave up a lucrative job offer in Baghdad and joined a private sector organisation where he stayed for the next 40 years of his life, that the family decided to move to a small town in Maharashtra. Again, there were no proper schools within the township. The nearest school was some miles away. My sister by then had moved to an elite boarding school in Calcutta. So, I tugged along my adventurous parents clueless about my academic future to the sleepy town in Tumsar Road in Maharashtra. I don't why my parents had chosen what they did for me, but we found Masterji ( an old retired teacher) who spent a few hours every morning in a dingy old room teaching the names of seasons, fruits and flowers in Hindi. I spent a couple of months in Masterji's classes( essentially on his lap) across the road and learnt “aashaad, shravaan and bhadrapad”.
My sister, of course, was from a different planet. I would look up in awe every time she visited us from her elite Enid Blyton dream-come-true boarding school. She spoke with a clear accent, sang Christmas Carols and introduced words like "supper" and "counterpanes" to my life. She also ate fish with a fork. To top it all, my only cousin made it worse. She was a second generation American immigrant kid who spoke English with a heavy American accent and Bangla with an English accent. Every summer, my NRI cousin and my well groomed sister would visit us and gang up against me. It was not because I did not speak their language. They were just elder sisters playing up against a younger one. But, in my baby eyes, I was clearly not in their league and would cringe at my incapability to form a grammatically correct sentence in English, leave alone engage in a meaningful conversation with my very stylish sisters.
Fortunately, we moved to Bhadrak in no time and for the first time in my life, after I had just completed my 6th birthday, I got my first school uniform. “Sunshine Public School. English Medium”, the blue and white signboard changed my life. I was directly admitted to Upper KG in the last three months of the academic calendar and when I joined school, we were already on Chapter 23 of the Radiant Reader. Interestingly, I was not registered as a regular student. It was way too late in the year. I had joined school finally but there were no roll calls for me. I was not counted. I was a nobody; just an unregistered extra chair in the class. I don’t know why it hurt my little pride a bit.
Even as I struggled to read a line in English, grappled with forming sentences, I was tasked to write questions and answers from Late Kate and Simple Simon! That I scored a four out of twenty-five in the first unit test was no surprise. My mother had tears in her eyes when the Class teacher Ms Dakshina told her that I was no good. My Baba was furious and I remember him throwing away my horrid homework book with red X marks all over. I did not know what was wrong. All I remember from that moment is a little helpless girl running out of the house to the backyard, ashamed and lost, overlooking a paddy field and a speeding train. That December I fell ill again and answered my annual exams with a high temperature. Baba draped me in a thick red coat and drove me in his jeep to the school. He sat there as I took my test. By some fluke of destiny, when the results were out, I had not only beaten all my own records, I had beaten everyone else in class and picked up a second rank. My mom, as emotional as all moms are, had ended up crying again when she came to collect my report book. The school principal, as generous as only he could be, announced a special award for this student who was not registered. I received my first book “Cinderella” as my prize from him in the school assembly.
I had never scored a second rank again in Sunshine Public School. I was slowly getting used to being the first ranker throughout my first and second grades. I was also exposed to Odissi at this juncture in life as my training under Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra started then. Naturally, I became active on the school stage. However, spoken English was still a pain I struggled with. I dreaded going to the Principal’s office because it meant a conversation in English had to be either initiated or responded to. I remember a day when I was wincing in acute abdominal pain and could not muster the courage to go up and speak to my principal for a special permission to go home. I don’t recall feeling as helpless ever.
1983 and we moved to Bokaro Steel City where I was exposed to one of the best schools of Eastern India- Chinmaya Vidyalaya. By some miracle, I seemed to have done extraordinarily well in my admission test and even though only half way through my Grade 2, I was admitted directly to Grade 3. It was here that I first met the lady who transformed my life. Mrs Sujata Kumar was my Class teacher and taught us English. She was the kindest, most soft spoken and patient teachers I had known. With her, English seemed like the only language I would use to converse with myself. She made it that easy, that simple and yes, that perfect. Under her tutelage, English became my favourite subject; and I would spend all my time outside of school, reading, literally devouring books. There were not many children’s classics that I had not read by the time I turned nine. Soon, I was not just communicating in English but winning all school elocution contests. I don’t know what she saw in me. In hindsight, I think I see my God in her.
Then there was another day in 1985. We had moved to Durgapur and I was asked to write an autobiography of a broken umbrella! What a piece of homework for a 10 year old. I had no clue how autobiographies were written and was struggling hard. I took resort to my sister who was now a high schooler. Dids, in one of her rare bad moods, refused to help. I cried, cajoled, pleaded but nothing worked! Desperate, I hid myself in a dark corner of the house (we used to call that my gosha ghor or the whine zone) and began scribbling whatever came to my mind. I came back home the next day with an “Excellent” in red ink marked by my English Teacher. I graduated from St Michaels’ School in 1991 and English continued to be my best subject.
From the time I could spell ambition, I had only wanted to be a journalist. My first and only dream was to write a book someday and become an author. My heartfelt gratitude to the circumstances and the people who have made this dream possible!
I am what I am today, because of the push backs I got in life, the language that I learnt to love and am yet to master…
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