My literacy began with my being able to speak, and when what people said began to make sense to me. And it began with listening verses from Mahabharata and Ramayana. Father’s melodious recitations of them were the nightly rituals in our house. There used to be Pujas, and the priests impressively read verses from the scriptures. Through these all rituals, I understood that knowing what was in the papers was respectable; knowledge mattered.
Formally, my literacy began with the teaching by my father, himself a one-time school teacher, and a well-read gentleman. He taught me alphabets and numbers in dust, and sometimes in dust-smeared rough planks, with a piece of hard straw or the forefinger. I imitated him as he drew the symbols. I learned Nepali and English alphabets thus.
When I was six (in 1978) I was put to Kalika Primary School of Tandi 8, Morang. Sister and brother had already completed the first standard in Fulbari, Jhapa. Father took three of us (Sister, elder brother and me) to the school office, which was one of the five small rooms of the mud-stone-tin building. A man (perhaps a teacher) wrote brother’s and my name easily, but had a hard time spelling sister’s. Father pronounced it five times before grabbing the pen and writing it himself for that man. I still remember this first day to school.
The school was not a pleasant place to begin with. Just imagine sitting on the dusty floor for the whole day, and sleepily, incessantly chanting “Kapuri ka, kharayo kha, gaigode ga …. ek ra ek eghara, ek ra dui bara.” Forget about the audio-visual aids and the teacherly tricks and pleasantries that we often talk about as the means of motivation and learning. I think, in the first year, I learned only a little more than the alphabets and numbers father had taught. The chanting was the most remarkable, though.
Then there was this day, the result day. I don’t remember what the exam was like. I remember the result. Someone called hundreds of names from grade four and below. He called so many familiar people, but I was nowhere. Why did he have to mention scores of them, even my siblings and cousins, and not me? On the way home, I told my sister he had not called me. She said I had FAILED. Back at home, both sister and brother harmoniously reported, “HE FAILED!” I was still bewildered, and could only offer an innocent grin to my parents. I didn’t know how and why one would fail.
Father was visibly disappointed, perhaps angry. But mother was there to rescue me: “See, you haven’t spared a single minute to guide him ever since he was put in school. What does he know about the school and exams?” But by this time I had run upstairs, covered myself with grandpa’s quilt and started weeping. I think father found me out and used his means of cajoling me. In the evening, he taught me a lot of things. He taught how to write most of what I thought and spoke. He taught addition, subtraction, and multiplication. I proved, as a pleasant revelation to my father, the quickest learner ever. Father could see that in comparison to dozens of kids he had taught as a school teacher earlier. We both must have been the happiest people together, father and I, for the first time.
I didn’t know what the labour and pleasure of that evening was for, till the next morning, before the school assembly. Father took me to the headmaster’s office. The headmaster, always a fierce-looking man for my age, gave me a piece of paper and asked me to write (in Nepali, of course), “I don’t like this school. I want to go to another school.” I wrote while my hand trembled with nervousness. With these two sentences done, he caught me by my arm, brought me to the assembly and told me to join the second row. That was the actual beginning of school, and literacy as well.
Father was taught by a teacher who was educated in a British school in Darjiling. So, he knew English and its value. He had taught me English alphabets and certain vocabulary and expressions long before I went to school. But he could not manage time to teach more than these. I saw my first English textbook only in grade four. But, I had already explored all of my father’s old books and notebooks. The books had stories in Nepali with accompanying English translations. I used to read the Nepali, and wonder what it was there in English.
What fascinated me most about the notebooks was father’s English handwriting. I was then tempted to scribble my own type of English, wherever possible – on green leaves, dry leaves, plates, planks and what not. I would mainly write 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 continue. What would look more interesting than the wrist, palm, thighs, and calves of a little boy, covered with hundreds of senseless patches and lines! People at home laughed, but I continued it for quite some time, and gave up only when I realized it really made me ugly.
English came much later in my life, not necessarily as a part of my literacy. It came first just as one of the subjects at school. My education was limited to learning new words and pronunciation from the texts. I could read lines only in grade VI. I learned basic grammar in grade VIII. I could write simple letters in IX, and short essays in X. I never spoke in English until in the Intermediate first year when I met a friend equally curious and committed as myself. I took English as a substitute for science after father’s confession of his inability to afford it for me and my acceptance of it. It has certainly worked thus in course of time.
I have dozens of pleasant memories of school. They sometimes appear to be more pleasant than the recent success stories.
From/In grade three, I was asked to be more than a student. I, along with other kids, had to help the school – to carry beams and planks from a far-off jungle for the desks and benches, to collect cow-dung from a neighbouring village to scrub the dusty floor, to pluck weeds in the school ground after every summer break, to fetch mud and stone for a new wall/building. I also participated in the fund-raising deusis of the school. This was perhaps another way to make a better student at that time in addition to studying and passing exams. This continued until there were enough rooms, enough seats and enough blackboards. My younger brothers did not have to do all this. My class, and those above us, had helped make a bigger, better school for our village. I can say, we made the school along with making ourselves.
The students in general did not dare to complain. There were other strange rituals to go by. Apart from any first day after holidays, which mostly demanded plucking, sweeping and scrubbing, there were several important days to remember for the school. There were democracy day, constitution day and birthdays of the king and queen. Those days were for us to arrive school early, line in processions through the neighbouring villages chanting after a senior, “long live our king, long live our queen, long live democracy, long live panchayat” and a couple of other catchphrases, which meant nothing more to us than disappointment to our dry throats and hungry bellies. After the processions, our teachers used to be kind enough to distribute red sweet-balls. You were lucky if you got one piece after minutes of struggle. Seeing the kids swarm in hunger and haste, the teachers would get irritated and simply hurl the sweets to the air while the hungry kids fought to claim their shares. We were just naughty chickens after the hour-long wishing of long life to the monarchs and their democracy.
And there was this Saraswati Puja, a festival. The school asked us to ‘pay’ some milk, some rice and some rupees as offerings to the goddess of learning. For a long time every year my father was invited to conduct the worship. In the assembly, he used to ask all of us to sing “jaya jaya saraswati, jaya jaya jaya.” But, we waited more than this singing, the haluwa and khir, the real boons of the worship. The teachers, assisted by bigger boys and girls, used to cook these delicacies in large pots. We devoutly waited for a ‘filling’ share. After all, each of us had paid some milk, some rice and some rupees. But we could get only a little more than two spoonfuls on a piece of paper or leaf-plate, and were asked to leave fast. We always knew that the “big” ones took control of the delicacies which accompanied their songs, dances, pranks and card games till the evening.
In fact, many more I would be happy to write on…………….