English was part of our curriculum from Class 6 to Class 11.When we were in Class 6 we learnt how to spell the word “car”. What happened was that the teacher said we must learn the spellings on a list of words, and then asked the class monitor to test us all. Some of the words were infernally long and there we were, in one voice, the entire class, cramming spellings. Then, when the class monitor stood up to test us, the master made us shut our textbooks.
Those who spelt a word right could sit down, but anyone who got it wrong had to stand in a corner. I was the first to be tested and was lucky enough to be asked the spelling of “car”. In a fit of excitement and over-enthusiasm I cried: “C...a... – car, car!” Instead of completing the word by saying “r”, I completed it by saying “car”.
So the class monitor said: “Wrong, Sir, absolutely wrong!”
“You can’t spell this little word? Even a four-year-old would have got it right! Go, stand in the corner.”
I went sulking into a corner but was delighted to find, only a while later, that except for four or five girls the entire class was ranged alongside me. “There are far too many of you who can’t read English” was all that Sir said to us in class that day. Yet somehow or the other we passed our way through all the way to Class 11. A couple of times I got what they called a supplementary result, and twice managed to get through by the grace of what were called grace marks.
Srivastava Sir didn’t waste his time on girls like me; his focus was entirely on a handful of girls who sat right in front and understood proper English. As Sir explained things in class, their heads bobbed up and down non-stop.
“Yes, Sir! Yes, Sir!”
If Sir asked now and then: “Is that O.K.? Have you understood?” their heads bobbed even more vigorously. We sat in the back rows with our books open but all we could see was Sir’s back and the girls’ bobbing heads! We didn’t understand a thing. And so in time we arrived at the settled conclusion that the best thing to do was laugh at them. We’d catch one or two English words in the class and then tease the girls in front just by going on repeating them. Sometimes, this caused them to burst into tears.
The one who bobbed her head the most was the class monitor, Yogeeta. She got wild: “This is great! Don’t study at all yourselves and then bother those that want to, so they can’t either. Don’t act smart, you lot! Don’t try any of this on us.You’ve got a complex because of English, a complex!”
“Arré, what’s that?”
We were foxed.We couldn’t figure out what she was saying. Nor did we want to ask either Sir or Yogeeta the meaning of that word, “complex”.
How could we have asked Yogeeta anyway? She was arrogant, and had we asked her it would have turned her head even more. Still, without knowing what the word meant, we started calling Yogeeta “Complex”. She’d get horribly irritated, and the more irritated she got, the more we rubbed the word in.
How we managed to get through the night before the English paper, don’t even ask! We tired ourselves out praying to all the gods there are! I’d pester Bai to help me pass via offerings at the temple.“Take a bowlful of flour to the temple. Pray for me. Over the whole time I’m answering my exam paper, please stay at the temple and sit with the lord. Don’t come home. If you do, I’m done for.”
But let alone pray for me, she didn’t even bother to wake me up. Both before and after the paper, Yogeeta and her friends just needed to look at us to laugh. High-pitched laughter it was, too.
I don’t know who it was, but one of them said, “If you touch a squirrel, you’ll pass!” Well, that was it! The whole day I tried catching a squirrel to touch. Holding my breath, I’d inch up to a squirrel on tiptoe, but no chance! God alone knows the things I did to try learning English!
And, oh yes, Rawat Sir was good at his job. He worked hard trying to get us to learn English. The truth is, I tried very hard too: I listened carefully, but the moment we started on tenses, everything went haywire. He was very emphatic about tenses, but those tenses made my head spin. Steadying his spectacles, Rawat Sir would announce with gravitas: “If you don’t learn your tenses, you won’t learn English.”
Well, I reckoned, if I’m not capable of getting something, how long can I go on running after it? With this thought I, and many other girls like me, bid a final farewell to the English language.
Around us we heard plenty about the pros and cons of English: “We don’t want to learn the language of our colonial masters.” The shallowness of this was staggering.
On the other hand: “Arré, English is the future. And child, you don’t know English! What sort of education have you had if you haven’t learnt any English? Say what you like, but you’re not educated, child!”
But we felt far away from all this. Having dropped English, we were happy in our fool’s paradise. We were consoled by hearing statements like “There’s no one more important in this world than your Mother. And the same goes for the Mother Tongue. Learning an alien language is not acceptable. Do you understand this, or are you incapable of understanding?” With nonsense such as this we’d blast our English-loving colleagues. We believed no-one could possibly win the argument against us!
But when the time came for the English exam, it felt like I was wearing a noose round my neck. “What if I fail?” The very thought gave me a migraine. “Oh god, I’m not asking for too much – just pass marks, even grace marks will do. I won’t ever depend on Bai again for doing well! I’ll work all night. I won’t let sleep get anywhere near me...” I’d mutter a thousand such things to myself.
Oh, forget it! Talking about English is like singing one of those unending ragas. Best to remember something uncomplex: “What’s happened has happened.”
Excerpted with permission from The Girl With Questioning Eyes, Neelesh Raghuwanshi, translated from the Hindi by Deepa Jain Singh, Permanent Black.