When my son’s Central Board of Secondary Education school announced in Class V that his third language for the next four years would be Sanskrit, I had visions of reading Kalidas in the original. By the end of the fourth year, I was tearing my hair out. Sanskrit, it is often said, is the perfect, most logical language. The way it is taught in school, though, that isn't apparent.

As a monster mom totally involved with my son’s studies, I soon realised that Sanskrit grammar seemed to follow no rules. Compared to the easily comprehensible rules of Hindi, Sanskrit was unpredictable. In the first year, this did not matter. Indeed, the language seemed easy, given the two-word sentences the course comprised. But the next year, we came up against the full might of Sanskrit’s unique grammar.

I still remember the lesson was about Ram’s sons, Luv and Kush, and the Ashvamedha yagna. A familiar story, but what Luv and Kush did with the imperial horse made no sense. Instead of reading “they tied the horse”, we read something else altogether, a new variation of the verb “to tie”. The plural form of the verb, as we knew it, was nowhere to be seen. The text simply described this new variation as “dwi-vachan”. We learnt later that in Sanskrit, there is singular, there is plural, and then there is dwi-vachan: a separate form of the verb when the subject is two people.

Forget rules

As months passed, we kept discovering newer enigmas – for example, the verb can be placed anywhere in the sentence. There may not even be a verb in a sentence. The word iti (meaning thus/in this way) could prop up randomly anywhere. None of this was explained. Having encountered it, you just had to live with it.

The teacher, despite knowing that the students knew only English and Hindi grammar and that Sanskrit was different, did not think it necessary to teach this new language with reference to those languages. “Why burden these children?” he asked in a perfectly reasonable tone when I requested him to do so.

My husband adjusted quickly to the situation and designed a table to help my son mug up the different cases of each verb. But that was just the beginning.

As the sentences became longer and the construction more mystifying, I tried everything I could to make sense of the rules of Sanskrit grammar – if at all they existed. I contacted Sanskrit associations in the city; consulted a scholar friend. The one answer I got from them was: forget trying to get your 12-year-old to understand these rules, you will only confuse him.

Scoring subject

Perhaps I should have let him do what the rest of the class was doing: go for tuitions, mug up on the text and score. The poor boy did not have the guts to tell his mother that he was fine doing that. So he suffered as I emailed our list of doubts to my scholar friend late night on the eve of every exam, and turned on the computer at 6 am to check the answers.

Finally came the moment when my son had to choose between Sanskrit and Hindi for the final two years of school. For me, it was like Liberation Day. For my son however, the future did not look so bright. He knew his friends would score a perfect 100 in Sanskrit, while he might score above 80 in Hindi. And he was proved right.

This was what Sanskrit meant to the students: a “scoring” subject that helped raise their grades in the crucial Class X Board examination. Did they get a glimpse of their glorious heritage? What my son did learn from our ancient language was a strange morality. A cow that was lavished with attention so that she could ultimately produce huge quantities of milk kicked her owners when they finally tried to milk her. A foolish king who trusted his monkey bodyguard too much had his nose cut off when the monkey used his sword to swat a fly on the king’s ears. It was a cruel, cynical world, where fools stood no chance. And there was no missing the presence of caste: a Brahman had his dharma clearly mapped out, and flaws in character meant you had to be low caste.

What did the kids make of all this? The one fun thing my son remembers from those days was his friends addressing each other as “bho kukkur” – “hello dog”.