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)


English Made Me (2)

The story will have to be told, I suppose.

I don’t remember learning the alphabet, that must have happened somehow, though I seem to remember the succulent red-and-gold apple illustrating ‘A’ and looking like something Eve had just plucked for Adam – still think of it as Adam’s apple, I do. Otherwise the book was a Longman’s primer, which meant that it had been imported from London, no wonder Eve had been at it.

Nor do I remember anything of the B-A-T bat, C-A-T cat stage, though which Indian will not remember the famous Kishore Kumar song to the effect that if c-a-t cat means billi and r-a-t rat means chuha, what’s the harm in my heart being in your clutches (closest translation)? No wonder we Indians never learnt English.

And then I was put in the kindergarten section of the South Point school in South Calcutta – as if it could be North Point! The school was situated in Mandeville Gardens off Swinhoe Street. A green gate and a high wall, behind which there was a largish bungalow complete with a tiled roof. The patch of ground in front must have been the lawn but had been trodden bare by the time I was coralled, don’t remember having seen a single blade of grass. We called our English teacher ‘Miss’ instead of ‘Didimoni’ (literally, ‘jewel of an elder sister’) since it was an English medium school. She was the first woman I ever fell in love with. Remember, we’re talking about the mid-’fifties – not her age, silly. She must have been around thirty and dressed and did her hair exactly like one of those educated ‘Brahmo’ ladies in Tagore’s tales – she might even have been one, for all I know.

She used to sit at the piano in her pale blue sari made of some billowy stuff called georgette, as I seem to have gathered even at that tender age, though not why georgette, what georgette, did it have something to do with King George? No, it was invented by an early 20th century French dressmaker by the name of Georgette de la Plante – which it has taken me another century to find out. In any case, Miss used to sing us nursery songs, English nursery songs, accompanying herself on the piano. One black high-heeled shoe worked the pedal while her eyes steamed over behind her fashionable, gold-rimmed spectacles. I believe she used to use (now, what kind of English is that, Dakoo?) lipstick, I’d seen stains of it on her dazzlingly white, slightly horsy teeth.

I was Miss’s favourite pupil – women always reciprocate true love. And of course I learnt my lessons better and faster than the others. So when our class had to put up a show for the annual prize distribution ceremony, she invented an act just for the two of us. On stage, she’d hold up various cards each bearing a verb like ‘run’, ‘sit’ or ‘jump’, and I’d enact the verb, so to say. There were a couple of microphones hanging low for some group-song to follow and I ‘ran’ into one of them with such force that it sounded like a clap of thunder over the loudspeakers. I was seeing stars (though not stripes, being British to the core) and there was a buzzing in my ear for the rest of those excruciating five minutes. But I did not let ‘her’ (that’s why Rider Haggard called his novel ‘She’) down. I ‘sat’, ‘jumped’ and ‘threw’ with alacrity all for her sake, only for her sake.

And then they wanted to give me a double promotion (ahem) directly from cagey one to class one, which my father thought was outrageous. So I was taken out of South Point and put in a much larger cattle pen called St. Lawrence High School – still in South Calcutta, crossing Ballygunge Circular Road/Richie Road – wouldn’t think we Bengalis ever had anything to do with Calcutta if you looked at the street names, in those days.

In any case, it was the end of my very first love affair and the beginning of a second, unbeknownst – this time with the English language. Take our English story-book, class one (designating the first year in the primary section, silly, not ‘class’ in terms of quality as in the EU agricultural norms). It – the book – was a fairy-tale. Again, freshly imported from England, beautiful white pages, beautifully printed and beautifully illustrated. There were gnomes and fairies in it, cottages and flowers and trees. The fairy-tale world with every imperfection removed: not just from the pictures – those shitless dogs and dungless cattle – but also from the paper, from the print, from the binding. I was most impressed by the print: large letters that did not smudge at all, you could admire even the commas and the full stops. And if there’s one smell that women should aspire to, it’s the smell of a new book – not an Indian book, printed in Kolkata or Kanpur or Delhi, where you can smell the gum in the binding, especially if it’s damp. And in those days, the gum would often have a smell like food that is rotting since it was not gum at all but just cooked rice, crushed and smeared, same stuff that we repaired our kites with. But the ink at least smelt good. And the paper, even Indian paper. Paper always has that crispy feeling when it’s new, like the starched sari of an Indian woman – georgette be blown.

And you thought we were talking about English?

(To be continued)

Between Staying and Going away (2)

For my farewell from the Huchukparah mess we made that trip to the lava mounds of Tulin with the lac trees growing among the boulders. We drank Mohan Meakin’s Saki (a blended whisky) sitting on pure geology and stared down at the lakes scattered among the green fields like the red earth’s blue, placid eyes. There’s a worm in those waters which eats into the skin between the toes and works its way up through the body.

The railway line and the Hindal aluminium factory on the other side of the highway looked like the history of civilisation but we were sad. We were sad because I was going away from Purulia – forever. Unless I returned as the Branch Manager some day. All my mess mates wished that I would. It’s the way human beings fool themselves when parting becomes inevitable.

I, we, the expat family, used to go to India every other year and I remember my mother’s face the day that we arrived and the day that we left. Like sunrise and sunset. Like that song in Fiddler on the Roof.

You see, human beings were nomads first, who stayed together wherever they went, it was the earth that moved. And then they built the villages, each village so far away from the previous one that they wouldn’t be able to see the smoke from each other’s fires and distance and absence and forgetfulness were born.

Mother never blamed me. Nor my siblings. Nor my father. Nobody in the family. They all left me alone with my guilt merely asking: ‘When are you coming next?’ And it was my turn to lie. Whereas I had disembowelled the family when I went away, I had taken away its centre, that’s what I believed. My elder sister heard that one and laughed: ‘Just who do you take yourself for?’ Her eldest son has migrated to Australia now, serve her right.

Mother standing on the landing in front of the entrance while we piled into the taxi, two taxis, as a matter of fact, would be ‘Taxen’ in German, as I was explaining to my younger brother, as if it was a joke, as if all languages were a joke, countries, jet flights and ‘When are you coming next?’ were a joke. Mother had her aanchal, that’s the border of her sari, to her mouth, covering half her face. Like all Bengali mothers, she knew it would be inauspicious to cry at the moment of departure. At what other moment should she cry, should we cry, can someone tell me? While writing a blog eight years after her death, perhaps?

If you want to kill a blog, try getting sentimental about your dear departed mother, or father, or even your youngest brother who was in a hurry to meet His Maker or maybe His Maker was in a hurry to meet him. God will know what do with such a soul, clever, compassionate, generous, gregarious.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to return to my theme, which is between staying and going away. I thought I was going away, huh! Mother didn’t even tell me when she went away, they rang me up later. My youngest brother told me when they were taking him to the hospices and we did talk a few times after that. But even he didn’t tell me when he’d be coming next.

I’ll come and see him when the time comes, he knew.


Between Staying and Going away

The fundamental problem with the modern world is that we are all getting more and more mobile as the world turns into a global village and people are constantly being confronted with the choice of either staying or going away – a choice not exactly unknown in the olden days but not half so acute or frequent as today, as you can well imagine.

People used to go abroad for higher studies and return in due course to the country of their origin to take up teaching posts and other posts of responsibility and importance. Something about their dress and their manners revealed to the end of their days that they’d been abroad. They were not quite Indians, Bengalis or Kolkatans any more. Maybe the pipe that they smoked; maybe the foreign car held on to until it disintegrated; maybe the foreign wife turning roly-poly like a Bengali masima (aunt) because of all the rich food – but that was about all. It was like eating curry and rice with a fork and a knife off china plates from a ‘proper’ dining table – remember that we Bengalis learnt how to eat the blighty way long before the sahibs learnt how to eat a mango anywhere other than in the bathtub with a bib around their necks and a towel around their midriffs.

What I mean is: (a) you went away – abroad; (b) you returned from the queen mother country to your native land; (c) you cherished the memories of Oxbridge and Charing Cross and the Inner Temple but were not necessarily unhappy or dissatisfied that you had returned to your ‘roots’.

The difference between those who go away and those who stay is as old as time. The moment you have a human settlement, it puts the sons of that settlement in the age-old quandary: do I stay or do I go away? The daughters of the settlement might get married within the settlement or away from it, creating other kinds of tension and other kinds of agony or distress. And then: what about those sons and daughters who were only too happy to get away – I mean to go away? Centripetal and centrifugal, see? The same forces at work.

When I was with the State Bank of India in the ’seventies, I used to get sent to various mofussil, that’s suburban towns on training. The first thing that I noticed when I turned up at the ‘Treasury’ in Purulia or Jalpaiguri was the subtle difference between the clerks who would or could remain posted to that branch till they retired, while the officers were liable to get transferred to some other branch or maybe to the headquarters after a stint of two to three years.

The clerks stay while the officers go away. They have to. They have no choice. I’ve seen head cashiers with ten times more influence than the ineffective branch manager simply because the head cashier was a local – potentate, almost. People feared him more than they loved him, but the entire cloth business of that place would have come to a stop without that head cashier. I was lucky. Bidhan-da decided to treat me, a greenhorn probationary officer on training, as a kind of wayward nephew from the moment I arrived.

I was going to stay at the Huchukparah mess with the clerks, I informed the Branch Manager. An officer, even a P.O., staying with the clerks? the BM frowned. It was my first turn away from home and I’d be damned if I was going to stay alone or in a hotel, I told him. So he had to agree.

A mess is a chummery, of sorts. Ours boasted some of the most colourful characters I have ever met in my earthly existence: Subhash with the unforgettable comment, for instance, that long hair was like a coconut tree on the bank of a pond, tall but with little soil at the roots, no wonder that they fell off! Satya used to slow cycle around our wooden cots when he had nothing better to do, winding in and out of the rooms on his Raleigh – otherwise he used to sing devotional songs to Goddess Kali in his spare time.

Mornings that unbelievably tall and lissom and jet-black and pretty Santhal girl used to turn up at crow-crow and cry out in her melodious voice: ‘Need dried cowdung cakes?’ As fuel for the kitchen fire, not for eating, of course. We’d still be lying in our cots, unmarried young men with the unfulfilled sexual energy of ten King Kongs – but polite as hell!

‘How much for you together with the cowdung cakes?’ we intoned unisono, making her laugh, I’m a fool not to have married her. I went away, you see.

(To be contd.)