It all started when I was maybe about seven or eight years old. The alphabet I knew by then, but nothing beyond that. It started with the miseries of learning English grammar. We had a small booklet which translated everything from English into Gujarati – my mother tongue – and vice versa. First of all, I had to memorize the form of “to be” like ‘I am, we are” and so on. In Gujarati, this “form” was known as “roop”, a word which also means beauty. Now I never understood where the “beauty” in this was. To me, a girl could be beautiful, but this “to be”?
My tutor ,Govindbhai was a very hard taskmaster and at the slightest mistake, a hard slap would unfailingly find its mark well. I had memorized the “to be” and was quite prepared when he came the next day and asked me to recite the form of “to have!” Well, I never knew that there was another beauty called “to have,” so I innocently started reciting, “I am, we are,” when another hard slap landed on my cheek. When I looked askance at him, he said, “You fool! I asked you to recite the form of “to have” and not “to be”!” When I could not understand the difference between the two, he made me memorize this form too. I don’t remember how long this continued, but one fine day I found myself in a higher class, reading from an English reader.
My sister, ten years older, took up the challenge of teaching me English. I was happy at the prospect because I knew that whereas she might get angry with me if I committed a mistake, she would never raise her hand.
The first lesson went something like this: “there was a castle atop a hill, in which lived a handsome prince”. She explained to me the meaning and then asked me to translate it in Gujarati. To which I merrily replied, “there was a castle named Castle atop a hill in which a handsome prince lived”! “My dear brother, a castle is a castle it is not named Castle.” I protested, because in Gujarati, the world “gadh” means castle and we have many of them by the name of Sinhgadh, Raigadh , Chitordgadh and so on. And so I extended this thought to English, thinking this castle must be something like Castle-gadh! My sister laid down arms and surrendered – this “dumbo” was beyond repair.
And so my adventures with this silly English language continued. As if prose was not enough, a book called “Poets and Poetry” was thrust into my hands. By now, I could at least read the damn language, even if I did not understand it! There was a poem whose opening lines were, “go down to Kew in lilac times…”. Those were the years of the second world war and I was used to standing in long queues for sugar, kerosene, wheat and what have you, apart from of course the bus queue. The word ‘Kew’ intrigued me. I thought it was the printer’s devil and should have been ‘queue’ I had no clue as to the difference between queue and Kew. I was not aware of the famous ‘Kew Gardens, and wondered whether the idiot poet was talking about queuing up the lilacs for daily rations? Next, would he write about daffodils dancing in a pub or something? And this was what they called English poetry? I shook my head in total disbelief! Well, like it or not, I had to memorize many such poems and I remember having been detained after school hours if I had not done them right.
I think God must have felt the pain of Govindbhai’s slaps on my cheeks so he decided to send one of his angels in the form of Ashok – a distant cousin seven years my senior – to rescue me from this hell. Ashok was very fluent in English and being a very lovable person, I got along very well with him. He knew about my love for sports be it cricket, hockey, football or just about any of the others – not that I was good playing them but I used to eagerly read any news in the vernacular press. There was not much coverage apart from for cricket, but some English newspapers devoted one or two pages to sport. He suggested that I try reading only the sports news regularly and assumed that Iwould automatically progress from there to the other sections. I heeded his advice and moved on to reading about the battles and tribulations of World War II and thus started my redemption.
I improved considerably and in 1951, set sail for England to study engineering. My stay there for about a year did help, but the great change came in 1953-54 while studying German under Dr. Nicolai. I have never studied under a better professor teaching languages than him. Under his tutelage,I learnt the finer nuances of German and applied them to English too. I am very happy to say that the erstwhile ‘dumbo’ today considers himself above average in English!