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Learning a language is not a fun experience, especially when one is forced into it. Yeah, I know you’ve probably met several people who’ve told you how much fun they’ve had learning Zulu, Siamese, or Catspeak, but that’s because they learnt it on their terms. They weren’t told by their parents that they had better learn it or else. Ask a child who is force-fed a foreign language, and you’ll get the truth from tender, lisping lips: “It sucks.”
This is the situation into which our little family was catapulted when we moved back to India. Initially, my husband and I were too busy to pay too much attention to the knee-nipper crowd. We had to grapple with everyday problems like trying to outwit the power outages by working our geyser, washer-dryer, and food processor ahead of time (this never worked; the blackouts caught us by never occurring on schedule), and figuring out whom to bribe in the government offices where we went to get various services and licenses (the answer is so simple. When in doubt, bribe). Therefore, we did not notice the domestic unrest brewing until the First Unit Test.
Hey, everything looked normal on the outside. The kids went to school, the kids came home, they played, they fought, they ate, they played and fought some more, and eventually went to bed. There was a little blood, a lot of sweat (it was the end of the Indian summer and the monsoon was delayed), but no tears, so we were lulled into false complacency that all was hunky-dory, not to mention peachy-keen.
Then along came the First Unit Test and we got an inkling that something was certainly UP. My husband began to swear quietly under his breath, and I started having hysterics. The reason was Language. My older daughter had opted for Kannada as her 2nd language and French as her 3rd, while the younger one chose Hindi (she doesn’t need a 3rd language yet, praise the Lord). Both of them could have just chosen Swahili for all they got out of their language classes.
My husband the Planner had seen this coming as early as 2 years ago, when we first decided to return to India. With this in mind, he had been tutoring both our girls in Kannada and Hindi, and they had learnt their alphabets. The kids had learned to read, but not to understand what they were reading. They were also not familiar with the spoken version of the languages (South Indian languages can have formal and informal versions). Unfortunately, the teachers spoke only in the language they taught, which of course, meant zilch to our darlings. As a result, the older one had read an entire story in Kannada without having a clue of what was in it, and as for the younger one, don’t even ask. Other than imitating the way the Hindi teacher said, “Theek hai, beta?” she was totally innocent. I asked her what theek hai meant, and she looked strangely at me and asked, “How am I supposed to know?”
Picture this: one night before the language exam, and two clueless children. My husband went into emergency mode.
“We have to help them somehow,” he said. I nodded and took on the Kannada student, the 10-year-old, who was glowering at me. However, in the heat of the moment, I had forgotten one simple fact: I do not know to read Kannada. This sounds quite normal, until I tell you that it is my mother tongue. I speak it very well, but since I had been born and bred in Tamil Nadu, I never had the occasion to formally study it. I can quote freely from ancient Tamil poetry since I studied Tamil for ten years in school as a 2nd language, but Kannada is all squiggles to me.
But I tried. I made her read from the text, and told her what it meant. Things were proceeding in a rather halt-and-go manner when she asked me what a squiggle stood for. We had hit a roadblock.
Dad had been “coaching” the 7-year-old, i.e. figuring out what exactly she did know and what she didn’t. Perceiving that the situation had deteriorated at our end of the dining table, he came over. Fortunately, the squiggles meant something to him, since he had studied the language during his school years. I gladly handed over the child and the textbook. Both were giving me a headache.
Then arose the next debacle.
“Can you handle the Hindi?” he asked me, and waited confidently for the answer. For, you see, I had been running around for years spouting Hindi a little here and a bit there, thereby conveying the impression that even if I weren’t a card-carrying Pandit, I was at least a Rashtrabhasha(national language) pass. Actually, I hadn’t even qualified for Prathmik( elementary).
“Bhool gaya sab kuch, yaad nahin ab kuch,” I replied numbly. (I’ve forgotten everything).
“What was that?”
“Title song from the movie Julie, starring the South Indian star Lakshmi and some nameless guy, sung by Kishore Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar. It also kind of, sort of, explains my present situation,” I muttered, staring fixedly ahead.
“Wait a minute, a movie song can’t be relevant to this situation,” he bit off tersely. Time was running out. Exams and school buses wait for no man, woman, or child.
“Yes, it is. That is how I learnt Hindi. Oh, I did go to a class but I dropped out after just a month. I’m not sure I can handle lessons and notes,” I confessed. This was absolutely true.
The 60s, 70s, and 80s were the heyday of melodies, and I loved film music, be it Hindi, Tamil, or Malayalam. I listened to Mohammed Rafi, Kishore Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, Manna Dey, and Hemant Kumar whenever I could and came to love them all. Along the way, I picked up a few words here and there, enough to learn a few meanings and some syntax. I learnt Hindi words for inside and outside from Bobby songs (and a few other things, but we don’t want to go there), the term for 14th day moon from Chaudhvin ka Chand and so on. While I could probably describe succinctly a wet, wet night (yeh raat bhigi bhigi) or a beautiful trip (suhaana safar aur yeh mausam haseen), I was useless at distinguishing between a ‘oo’-maatra and an ‘oh’- maatra(vowel mark). In short, I was not in a very strong position from which to launch a child into an exam which was going to be chock-full of the said maatras.
However, hubby the Realist cut through the handwringing. “Do what you can,” he said.
I won’t go into the details of the time that followed, because the part of the brain that blocks out traumatic events has kicked into high gear and done its work. No doubt someday in future, when I hear a child reciting the Hindi alphabet, I’ll go berserk and need a padded cell, but until then the memories will stay blocked. All I remember from the experience are tears (my eyes were overflowing, I know), some G-rated swearing, and some epithets hurled at us, such as “You are mean, Mom” and “That’s not fair, Dad!”
Funnily enough, the kids came through all right in their exams. The older one even managed to get 16 marks out of 20, which is equivalent to a cat interpreting the equation “E=mc².” As for my little Hindi scholar, she came home from the exam and told me that I was going to be proud of her, because she was going to score full 9 marks out of 20. She was as thrilled as a cockroach in a pile of used dishes when she found that she bettered her own expectations: she got 10 out of 20. I watched anxiously as her sister asked her if she knew that she had just passed, nothing more. Her reply was nonchalant. “Yeah, I know. So?” Then and there, I decided to take my cue from her. Sung to the tune of “Mera joota hai Japani,” my degree is from Montana, my life now is in Mysore, my 2nd language in school was Tamil, and I was capable of teaching 2nd grade Hindi.
My spouse the Serene was well-pleased with the result. “She is really beginning to get Hindi, isn’t she?” he smiled beatifically. I thought so too, at the time.
Two days later, I was in the kids’ room picking up uniforms for ironing, when I heard the song she was singing. “Lala, gajar kha (Lala, eat carrots)/ Kamla, gaana gaa (Kamla, sing a song),” were the lyrics she was repeating, and they sounded familiar, until I realized that they were from her Hindi lesson. She was putting a nice rap beat to the lyrics and making her toy plush dogs dance to the song.
I just had to ask the question. “Do you know what those words mean?”
She gave me a “Duh!” look and said, “No!”
I realized at that instant that what we had climbed together was just the first project of an ant colony’s beginner mound-building class. I know that Mount Everest still awaits us. We have the quarterly and other exams looming, but sufficient unto the evil thereof.
Meanwhile, there is definitely potential for a rap number in that Hindi lesson. It could go like this:
“Lala—boom-boom-shaka—gajar kha—boom-boom-shaka-laka, boom-boom-shaka-laka
Kamla—boom-boom-shaka—gaanaa gaa—boom-boom-shaka-laka, boom-boom-shaka-laka.”
The song is not quite complete, but there are many more lessons in punctuation left, a veritable treasure trove of lyrics. I definitely want Beyonce to sing this masterpiece, wearing tight black leather mini skirt, and an equally form-fitting abbreviated black blouse that looks like a puppy has chewed on it. If she puts the right amount of heavy breathing and hip work into it, it will bag a Grammy, mark my words. The best part is that she doesn’t even have to worry that she doesn’t know Hindi.
I can teach her.
Lakshmi Palecanda lives in Mysore, India. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org