Learning Doitch

The ‘language issue’ might have determined the whole course of my life here in Europe.

I got three shocks when I first came to Germany.

Firstly, it was as if my entire savings had been wiped out by a bank failure, as if I’d gone bankrupt. My English was suddenly worthless – like a currency that was no longer valid. Secondly, coming from a country where the kind of English you spoke practically decided your class, category and social status, it was surprising to find a developed, prosperous, western nation doing entirely without it. The Germans seemed to manage with their German. Translators and interpreters saw to the rest, where languages rubbed shoulders. Thirdly, I hadn’t known how difficult it would be to learn German, to attain the same level of proficiency in German as in English.

But I was perceptive. There were certain things which I saw or realized, some at once, some with the passage of time: that language or languages are a part of the geography of a continent, you can’t disregard them any more than you can disregard the Alps. Language represents the true borders of a country, its defences, its Siegfried and Maginot Lines – even its Chinese Wall! Nation means physiognomy, language and religion, in that order. These are the things that bind and the things that separate tribes, and keep them strictly divided from one another. Languages leave their mark on history and bear its imprint, in their turn. One can, with a certain effort of the imagination, conceive of a world with only one, or no religion, even a world where physiognomy and skin colour and the other anthropoid characteristics do not play a role – but it is difficult to imagine a world in which everybody speaks the same language, makes the same sounds to signify the same things – unless we all start speaking in smileys. Otherwise there will always be ‘us’ and ‘them’, meaning the others, once called barbarians, today simply foreigners or aliens. Or at best everybody will have to turn multilingual on an unprecedented scale – and we’ll have to demarcate the operative areas of the various languages as well: English will be the language of politics and poetry, Japanese of trade and industry, American of armaments and entertainment, German of law and order, French of love, Chinese of dogma, Italian of domesticity, Arabic of religion, Russian of the Black Market, Polish of immigration, Spanish of unemployment, Hindi of poverty and Swahili of starvation. Some such scheme.

And then there’s the question of the accent. In those early days, I was vastly surprised to see a Samaranch or a Perez de Cuellar speak a very curious kind of English, to say the least, and apparently nobody sniggered. Somebody like Kohl, the Chancellor of a mighty nation, might even need an interpreter to translate President Bush’s golfing jokes to him. Kennedy once declared, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’, ‘I am a Berliner’ (which is otherwise a kind of sugared bun with marmalade in it), in an atrocious accent, and won the heart of the German nation. So it wasn’t necessary to speak everybody’s language with perfect ease, after all, or was it? Then why were the Turks laughed at here in Germany? Why was an ‘Indian’ accent so incorrigibly funny in Britain?

That was another problem: you learnt their language, they wanted you to get the right accent; you did that, and they wanted you to change the way you dressed, you cooked, you prayed, you beat your wife; you did that, and they wanted you to change the colour of your skin.

In any case, the main division in Germany was between those who spoke German, and those who didn’t, or spoke only in infinitives. The main division in the world was between people, otherwise dumb, ignorant people like you and me, who’d had the chance to learn a language from the age and the stage of an unaborted foetus upwards, and learnt it badly, but were still ‘natural’ to those parts by the joint operation of jus soli and jus sanguinis, and the others who had begun far too late, their heads and hearts full of some other kind of gibberish, their tongues twisted out of shape by other vowels, syllabic liquids, dipthongs, voiced and voiceless, aspirate or unaspirated or nasal, velar, palatal, retroflex, dental or labial consonants, not to mention the conjunct ones.

I found myself relegated to the second category and had no intention of remaining there. What I hadn’t taken into account was the fact that when an Indian spoke English, there was at least a major historical accident behind it. But when an Indian spoke German, it was a purely personal accident. And it has remained just that – a source of permanent despair and perpetual pain.

Learning Doitch. I did my best, of course, but I had difficulty remembering the gender and the appropriate articles, conjugating the verbs, declining the adjectives, forming plurals, deciding the cases, forming the participles of the strong verbs, keeping the various meanings of the weak, separable verbs separate in accordance with the respective prefixes, which are basically prepositions. The vocabulary had to be acquired. But English and German words often tend to sound similar, with just that shade of difference in the meaning. And English idioms cause so much of incomprehension here in Germany that it is fatal to use them in translation. And one should simply forget the prepositional idioms – which are basically the English equivalent of German separable verbs. One should either stick to the German separable verbs, if any alien has ever succeeded in mastering them, or even venture farther afield into German idioms, which are as phlegmatic as oxen waiting to be yoked.

The battle between German and English had begun, my poor Bengali mind caught between the mighty armies of two European languages, Dunkirk, German on the advance, English retreating.

I was there.

(To be contd.)


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)