Tuesday, 23 October 2012

English Vinglish

I am not a movie buff at all. Give me a good book, a packet of Haldiram's Masala Chips, formerly known as Traditional Indian Chips (sadly available for export only, so you have to leave India if you want to try them!) and a cup of coffee and I am all set.I am more than happy if no one speaks to me for the rest of the day!
But before the kids were born,we used to travel a lot and I firmly believed that to savour the flavour of a new city it was essential to visit the single screen movie theatre. So whichever city in the world we visited, my husband and I made it a point to hunt up the movie hall and catch a movie there.Sometimes the popcorn was stale,the coffee tepid, the fountain Coke very watery..In Indian cities the samosas were bland,or stone cold or had been fried in oil fit for the kitchen drain...But all in all it added to experiencing a new city from a non tourist point of view.
And then it all changed. The multiplexes came in and the multinationals kicked in and the cheese popcorn tasted just the same whether you had it in Pune or Pattaya, the tomato ketchup with the nachos had exactly the same plastic taste,Mars bars became available in Indian theatres too and you could watch a just released Bollywood movie on the same Friday anywhere in the world, as your counterparts in India.
Today, I absolutely refuse to watch a new Bollywood movie till I have read a hundred reviews, till people I know well happen to watch it and give me sound feedback, till I know for sure there is no violence and no foul language and the U/A tag is not a euphemism for what should actually have read as an A! For of course, the children accompany us on the rare occasions that we do go for a movie!
But I flung this cautious behaviour out of the window the minute I saw the previews of the movie English Vinglish when we were in India during the summer vacation. I knew this was one movie I just had to watch on the very day of its release.I am a qualified archaeologist by profession but I ditched that field (pun absolutely unintended!) when I realized that there was no way I could leave my new born daughter and go off on digs for days at a time.So I cleared the exam for lecturers and began teaching History in Pune's top colleges and the University.I could tailor my schedule to suit my toddler's school hours.Then my son was born and there was no way I could juggle a job and two kids without resorting to maids or grandparents for baby sitting or creches or day cares, none of which I believed in. After all my motto is 'they did not ask to be born!'
So when my son started school, and we moved back to India from Tanzania, I did the next best thing. I became my own master, thanks to my husband investing in some real estate for me just two minutes walking distance from the house, so I could set up my classroom.And a whole new world opened up for me as I turned to something I have loved (and been good at!) since my school days-the English language!
The school children came,of course.They came in droves for the creative writing and functional grammar course that I offered.Given the pathetic standard of English in most of India's so called English medium schools,it was fulfilling to see them flourish and acquire a good command over the language and it was gratifying to inculcate a deep love of reading in them.
But the major challenges lay in the classes I began for the adults.Yes, the mothers who had children studying in the best schools in town were desperate to speak the language.The children thumbed their noses at them just because of their inability to converse in the language,conveniently forgetting that they were in those schools as the mothers did not want a repeat of their own sad situation . Other mothers who wanted their kids to get into those very schools wanted to learn the language just to clear the interview, as parents who do not know English are more liable to be refused admission.There were mothers who,during parent teacher meetings, had not understood a word of what the teacher had been saying.When asked if the information could be repeated in Hindi,India's national language,all they got was a rude 'Couldn't you tell me earlier that you don't know English?'I would surely have asked 'Is it a crime not to know the language of the Kolonialists,a language which for all intents and purposes, remains a foreign language in India,a language which the Kolonial masters introduced to create clerks during the Raj?'But then, what do I know of their plight because I know English. So at that point I could only sympathize,not empathize.There were wives who had been categorically told by their husbands that they had refused deputations abroad because the wife was not conversant in English. Don't women from non English speaking countries manage when they leave their homeland and move to England or her former Kolonies, where ironically English still remains the language of the 'classes' with the masses desperate to come to grips with it? So why were Indian women being made to feel humiliated for something that wasn't even their fault to begin with!
Such women, with a handful of men thrown in for good measure,queued up outside my class along with young college students who had been educated in the vernacular medium but who realized English was a crucial qualification to grab a share of the rapidly shrinking job market.And nothing made me happier than having them walk out thirty classes later with a bounce in their step, a glint in their eye,head held high, ready to take on their spouses,their children,insensitive teachers and snobbish colleagues in what else but English?!Yes,it is possible,it is not a con,as a character in the movie English Vinglish feels it might be,only to have the protagonist prove her wrong!
I watched the movie in Nairobi a day after its release.It was everything I had hoped it would be, it captured the emotions of my students and their struggles to master the language perfectly.And by this point I could empathize with the non English speaking people too, not just offer hollow sympathy.For the first time I had found myself clueless about a particular topic.It happened when my son began studying the nitty gritties of American currency as the American school naturally teaches their own currency. The only bills a person who hasn't lived in the United States would be familiar with would be the fifty and hundred dollar ones.What about the pennies,the dimes,the nickles,the quarters? How many cents is each one? Which president is on the head and what's on the tail of that coin?It was mind boggling!I had to resort to the internet to study this, just in order to see if my son was doing his homework correctly.I can only imagine what the mothers go through when their children study Shakespeare, as is the norm in most top schools in India!
English-Vinglish or Dollar-Vollar, our children keep us on our toes! Will Wordsworth said ' Child is father of the man' (and I add, mother of the woman) and how right he was!If the Brits hadn't kolonized us,the French would have! Imagine going through all this agony in French! Good thing I teach French too!
Go out and watch the movie-if you haven't already.It is in Hindi, though the sub titles are in, what else, but English!It will be well worth the effort, assembly line popcorn notwithstanding!

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