Most Punjabis hate English as a British curse to the Indian masses, but I am a unique piece to have loved it since childhood and cemented our bond with time. You’d laugh if I told you how this affair with the alien tongue began.
I remember that as a child, if ever I came across white foreigners at any tourist place, I’d foist on my parents to introduce me to them so that I had an opportunity to practice my English or at least gather a few tips on English expressions and accent. If mom and dad disagreed, I’d run to the visitors on my own and, later, would go on telling people all day about the thrilling experience. For hours, I’d not wash my palms after handshakes with the whites.
Punjab Public School, Nabha, where I studied, I was a favourite student of English teachers, who looking at my enthusiasm for the subject would present me as a role model to other students. Most of the seniors and even some of my friends called me “Angrej”, “one that the British forgot to take along when they quit India”. Sometimes, the taunts would hurt, but I’d not be discouraged from speaking English, even though it wasn’t a strict rule those days in school.
Our housemaster, Shaju Antony from Kerala, one of the English teachers, would make sure that all students learnt this language well, and it helped that Antony Sir was also more creative at his work than his colleagues. One of his daily rituals was to write three words on the notice board and ask the students to learn these as a rule. He’d advise us to read newspapers for tips and practice spoken English. About 15 minutes before bedtime, he could barge in and ask anyone about the new words and the top headlines, and if you failed to answer, you didn’t know what he’d do to you.
To make it tougher, he had even planted some of his favourite students as spies among us, to give him the names of those who would not speak even a few English sentences during the day. I was one of his secret-service boys but, within a few days, some clever students figured that out. This mole, however, wasn’t put in chains or tortured. Rather, everyone started flattering me, and if I ever heard them speaking in anything not English, they’d apologise to me several times and suggest the culprits to name. Some even offered me chocolates but this extra sweetness wouldn’t melt my heart.
The culture of learning new words has stuck to me. I maintain special notebooks in which I write not only the new words but also inspirational quotations and proverbs. Wherever I go, the notebooks travel with me. On journeys, I spend most of my time reading my notes. I follow English interviews, BBC’s signature news bulletins, and “Miss Universe” and “Miss World” pageants on television, for I just love the way the English actors and anchors speak, the words they choose, and the confidence they carry. I imitate them even while taking a shower, forgetting that my gift is bathroom singing.
I do test my creativity, too, as I discover many new words and sentence structures in this process. Believe me, it helps. Bless the mirror that has to bear with my facial expressions as I practice newfound words. Imagination — what else you require to learn any language. Even Saint Lucian poet Derek Walcott once said: “The English language is nobody’s special property. It is the property of the imagination: it is the property of the language itself.”
The writer is a Ludhiana-based HT staff correspondent