Father was taught English by a teacher who was educated at a British school in Darjeeling. He had this rare ‘asset’, English, for his time and circle. I owe my English alphabet, basic vocabulary, everyday expressions, and handwriting to him. He bestowed some of these on me before I went to school. Later I got more of these from his old books and notebooks which I found in a wooden box stored in our attic. The books had stories in Nepali and Hindi with accompanying English translations. I could read Nepali, but could only recite most of the English and Hindi texts wondering what they conveyed.
The notebooks were special to me as Father’s school-time souvenirs – tasks, sketches, scribbles and creations. But what fascinated me most about them at that time was the English handwriting. It tempted me to write my own type of English, wherever possible – on paper, plates, planks, green leaves, dry leaves, big leaves, small leaves, and where not. I would also scribble on the bare parts of my body, wherever it was possible with my right hand. When I was short of space, I would clean some parts with spittle and keep writing. What would look funnier than the wrist, palm, thighs, and calves of a little boy, covered with hundreds of senseless patches and lines! People at home and in the neighborhood laughed at it. But I continued for quite some time, and gave it up only when I realized that it really made me ugly. Washing was one of those most shunned things by children of my place. Better not be too dirty than rush barefoot to a far-off stream only to wash your limbs because water, which parents fetched from as far, was scarce at home.
I saw my own first English textbook only in grade four, as all country kids of that time did. It was a thick pictured book mostly in black and white. We recited the alphabets and words after a teacher, and sometimes a class-fellow who had already mastered the art of recitation.
So, English did not come in the phase of my formal literacy, or was only a scanty part of the early literacy. The initiation at school was limited to cramming new words and (old) pronunciations, mainly to the satisfaction of the teacher who ‘taught’ English walking around the class with a formidable crook. The simple expressions Father had taught appeared intermittently in pages, but never came in the everyday course of being a pupil. Learning continued in this way also in the succeeding classes. I don’t remember reading English with as much zeal as the stories and verses from Nepali, Sanskrit and Moral Science books. It was one tiny thing of the many other subjects I had to do in Nepali, and came to my notice only before and during examinations.
In grade 6, a new teacher made my class do a lot of reading and writing from the English textbook. I got some sense of learning English then. But this enthusiastic man did not come to teach us in grade 7, and English again went to the margin. Then in grade 8, we had Mr. Prem Subedi, a ‘real’ English teacher, in the most traditional sense, who put the textbook aside for a few weeks to teach us the basics of grammar which for me formed a strong groundwork for future pursuits in English. Towards the end of schooling, I could write essays and make scanty conversations in English – all due to the knowledge of grammar rules and intuition and despite limited opportunity for real-time practices.
In the gap between the SLC results and joining the college, most of my English went into disuse. I took mostly to working in the farm, and went cattle-grazing and loitering around with village youngsters. Even most of my formal Nepali turned slightly rustic in the company of the semi-literate multi-ethnic cowherds. When I turned over the first lessons of the college textbooks after a year, which were in English except for the compulsory Nepali, I realized it was like diving into deep, rough waters without the slightest knowledge of swimming. Fortunately, the college English teachers, especially those who taught major English, succeeded in instilling some zeal for reading and writing English.
In the Intermediate level I shared a room with two different types of friends. The first had this habit of listing down all new words from the lessons and asking me to write meanings of whatever I knew. In this course, I would also be tempted to look up the dictionary for other unfamiliar words and enrich my vocabulary. The second happened to be a great learner himself. We started reading novels and stories together. We made it a point to communicate in English most of the time, to write about the texts and to show the writings to each other. This was the real beginning. We taught ourselves a lot or, in fact, time had brought us together to become life-long teachers and each other’s admirers.
My first ‘public’ speech in English involved a summary of Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Old Man and the Sea in the first year of my Intermediate studies. The English teacher invited ‘anyone’ of the class to volunteer to speak on the book. As I had happened to read it with much liking just the night before, I decided to try. It went smoothly. I could use many words that I never thought I had learned, and sentences I had never consciously constructed. Though this did not appear new for the class because I was one of the ‘noticeable’ in the batch, it was special for me for its being the first formal speech to nearly a hundred curious people. The teacher’s first comment after my presentation was that I had the potential to become a teacher.
That I was studying English was something worthy of mention back in the village. As a class-topper of my time and one of the three first division holders by then (by 1990), I was expected to study science. My entry in the humanities had made some people curious for some time. But ‘major English’ substituted the prestige accorded to science because it would demand as much learning and practice. I was regarded as good a scholar as a student of science was, and learned to maintain, or sometimes feign, some smart postures at home and with friends and relatives. There was enough satisfaction in it.
I have one interesting story to share from this period, the period of vigorous practice of English. It is about how my momentary appearance at a place led to fights and subsequent arrest of two of my neighbors.
The first was a Brahmin lad, one of my distant cousins, only four months older than I. He was my junior at school and had never passed the send-up test. He was still a ‘highly literate’ village lad with ample knowledge of pranks and quarrels. The second was a mongoloid, an early school drop-out. He had managed to work in Saudi Arabia for a couple of years, and had returned with some money, few modern gadgets and, above all, bits of ‘broken’ English. This was enough for him to walk on high heels among his half-literate neighbors.
My cousin and this man had sufficient time and reasons to be together all day long. The former did not work: the latter did not have (to) work. The former had attempted the SLC send-up test a couple of times and therefore was more educated: the latter, though a grade-five quitter, had had ‘international’ exposure and English and was more experienced. One had enough reason to bully the other at times. The Saudi returnee reportedly boasted a lot about his English. My cousin had had enough of it. I had never known or bothered to know this, though. Both of them were very good to me in our rare meetings, rare because I was out to the city while they lingered in the village.
One afternoon I happened to arrive at the junction near my house at such moment while the two were disputing over the standard and authenticity of the Saudi returnee’s English. I was about to walk past them when my cousin summoned from a distance. I went to them thinking that it would be rude not to. But he did not have any agenda but to challenge his opponent to talk with me in English: “Ok, here comes someone who can tell you what real English is. Come on, let’s fix what’s what.” I had no reason to stop and participate in this senseless fight. I headed home leaving them staring at each other.
I heard what had followed only a week later.
The Arabé was literally enraged for having been put in a contest with me, and had punched my cousin. What’s more, the latter had done his part and gone home to gather seven of his siblings and parents for a regiment in revenge. The Brahmin family had overpowered the molester with such consequence that he, after exhibiting equal strength of ‘human resources,’ had rushed with certain bruises and scratches to the police station to claim justice. The avengers had also followed suit by reporting a mortifying assault. Finally, the police had taken both of them, called their relatives and mediated for a truce. It had taken both sides about a week to be able to stop thinking that further attacks would not be made!
Brother still jokes that it was all because of my English. This seemingly hyperbolic narrative, which is as real as I am, always rings to me as something more than an experience. It is about how some people then attached English with social prestige. It is also about how in lack of work and proper direction some others gave themselves to trivial conflicts. I don’t think there has been any change in attitudes after twenty five years now.
I have become an English teacher today. I became one because I studied English at the university. I studied it as my major subject and gradually acquired it for life-skills. To me teaching English is not limited to teaching a foreign language, but helping human beings to broaden the perception of the world through communication, creativity and discourse. This submerges the general notion of teaching into my understanding of life as a constant alternation of learning and unlearning. The rationale for my attachment with the profession is as simple as the following, which I wrote for some other publication a while ago:
In teaching there is always a chance to know people and be known. Knowing people helps you increase the number of friends. Adding the number of acquaintances is a good source of knowledge, and partly, of emotional security. And this does not happen just once, but over the years. The piety of the profession itself suffices to keep you honest and invulnerable to corruption. Teachers are expected to act as role models both in knowledge and conduct. They are ethically conditioned to continuously update and polish themselves. This keeps them good, and goodness is not without returns, let alone the joy of seeing successes and growths. Teaching may not ensure material prosperity. Sometimes, you may think of switching the profession for rapid social or financial uplift. But everyday necessities and the desire for quick fame do not suffice to make you disapprove of the grandeur of teaching. The fact that teachers are needed until humans stop learning makes your presence indispensible and your profession respectable.