English Made Me (3)

…Mind you, the fairy tale was our first Rapid Reader. The main English textbooks were of the usual, Indian sort – child or goat could chew through them from January till December and derive as little moisture as nourishment. We had written examinations in each subject thrice a year. And in English the questions were set from those textbooks – there was a separate paper for grammar and a separate tome for it, Hall & Martin, about which later.

You must get the overall picture first: here’s your native Indian boy setting out in life to learn English. He’s got his textbook, his grammar and his rapid reader. The textbooks had lessons of the ‘Aladdin and His Lamp’ sort in them. The whole game, for the teacher as well as the pupils, was to devise as many questions as possible to each lesson, questions which could be neatly answered by merely quoting a certain number of lines from the text, verbatim. You either underlined the ‘answers’ in the text, or put them in brackets. Bracketing was better, since the answers often overlapped – so you could use the second and the third brackets as well, as in mathematics. The only trick, apart from memorising half the text (if not the whole of it), was to begin your answer by flipping the question over like a pancake or an omelette and getting your cue from it, so to speak. ‘What happened when Aladdin rubbed his lamp?’ Answer: ‘When Aladdin rubbed his lamp’, his arse exploded and his balls fell off and so on, all there in the text for you.

Perhaps the most mindless way of learning a language, trust us Bengalis to have discovered it or devised it, and perhaps not – since the Nobel prize winning German language author Elias Canetti learnt his German in a similar manner, it seems. His parents used to speak German as a kind of secret language and Canetti learnt the sounds, without a clue as to their meaning – that came later, after he had turned twelve – or that’s what I seem to have read. Well, we were slightly better off in the sense that we knew the meaning of the words (in most cases). We could read the language, even understand it, but we could not speak it. We could not form sentences on our own, of our own. That was the crux, that was the nightmare. I was under the impression that one had to memorise thousands of sentences in English to be able to speak the language.

I remember visiting a Japanese ship on the Hooghly with my uncle – they had a closed-circuit TV on it, that was the main attraction. I remember European sailors with tattooed forearms who reeked abominably of sausages and beef – as I discovered later. My uncle spoke to one of them: I remember staring at the pink knees of the sailor and the blonde hairs on his legs, while my heart swelled with admiration for my uncle, who’d learnt all those sentences by heart, and well enough to fish out the exact ones he needed, even in an extreme situation like that. After all, he was talking to a gorilla in its own language, somehow assuaging that sausage-and-beef-eating monster and keeping it in good humour so that it wouldn’t fly into a sudden rage and throw us overboard.

It went on like that right up to class four and then, towards the beginning of class five, Father, in his wisdom, took a foolscap sheet and wrote the word ‘Tense’ on it. Boy, was I tense! The page filled up slowly: Present, Past and Future; First Person, Second Person, Third Person; Singular, Plural; Indefinite, Continuous, Perfect and Perfect Continuous. The verb Father chose was ‘to go’, I’d be choosing the verb ‘to shit’ later, while teaching conjugation to my younger brothers: I shit, you shit, he/she/it shits and so on, right down to ‘I shall have been shitting’, that’s your perfect continuous, I was heart-broken later when they told me that there’s no such thing as perfect continuous: ‘I shall have been shitting’. What do they think I’ve been doing all my life?

All in all, I was formulating my own sentences in English before the end of the term, I can only compare it to learning how to ride a bicycle – you are suddenly released from gravity, from bondage, you take an evolutionary leap forward. You can suddenly pedal from one end of the sentence to the other, from one full stop to another, without crashing or having to put your feet down…

It’s been one of the few miracles in my life.

(To be continued)

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