I still remember the sense of joy and achievement when I learnt to spell out my name Krishnamoorthy in English when I was a primary school student in a small village in India in the middle of the last century. I thought I mastered another language, added another arrow in my quiver. It was my belief that all I had to do was to transliterate the words and sentences of Kannada, my first language, in the letters of the English alphabet. It was, I thought, as simple as writing “Nanu huduga” for “I am a boy.” According to my knowledge at the time, it was all there was to it to my new language.
It was not long after this I came to know that I had to travel farther beyond the letters of the alphabet; I had to acquire a whole new set of words for persons, things, and ideas, and put the new words according to a new set of rules, and learn much else. Huduga had another word “boy” in the new language, and nanu had to be substituted with “I.” It did not certainly feel as sweet to call huduga or nanu by any other name. The new words lacked the full range of meaning of the Kannada originals. The English word “father,” for example, excited no fear or reverence, and “mother” brought no cooling thought of a fountain of love and warmth. Even people in the new language had different names—Jack, Jill, Mary, and so on—different from the names of my friends—Rama, Sita, Laxman, Hanuman, etc. As you can imagine, my joy of English mastery was short-lived.
Despite the disappointment and obstacles, there was no going back so I soldiered on. Every day I learnt new words for family members, flowers, fruits, vegetables, animals, cutlery,–knives being the only cutlery we possessed,– etc, with their spellings and pronunciation, the latter whose approximation to the Queen’s English left completely to chance. Things were not as simple as it might sound. For example, I had no experience of the fragrance of roses—lotus, jasmine and parijata were the flowers I was familiar with–or the taste of apples so the original sin; dogs and cats roamed the streets and were a common sight, but they were, in spite of all the love and kindness towards the poor, helpless creatures who lacked linguistic abilities, as defined by Noam Chomsky and others, to assert their basic animal rights, not welcome inside the house and any slight physical contact with them required purification rituals; and the use of cutlery took the taste off food.
In my own language, I wrote as I spoke, but spellings of words in English were erratic. My vocabulary grew quickly in size, but the speed at which I could put the words together in the proper sequence to make meaningful sentences was slow in comparison. Learning the odd way of conjugating verbs “to be,” “have,” and “do” for Person and Tense and reconciling myself to the anomalous use of the inflectional ending “s” to make nouns plural but verbs singular to agree with the Third Person were exasperating. Helping verbs coming in between the subject and the main verb was annoying in the extreme; Kannada did all its work neatly by inflectional variations of the verbs. I wondered how I learnt many more letters of the Kannada alphabet and a complicated set of inflectional endings at a much younger age sitting on my mother’s lap without feeling any of the strain. Everything appeared to have happened in the case of literacy in Kannada, naturally, like the growing of my teeth. If I had teething troubles, I don’t remember. In fact, I have no memory of my first language acquisition, just as I don’t remember how I switched over from crawling to walking, strange as it may seem, considering the enormous amount of effort that must have gone into the skill required to balance my body on two tiny, slender legs.
Slowly, I built a new world with its own flora and fauna, and switched back and forth between the ordinary world I lived in and the strange world I created. A great deal of effort went into the building of the new fantasy land. I had to do everything over again from the start, a process long, tedious, and painful. It was like toilette training redux. If I woke up in the morning to the crowing of the cock in one world, I got up from bed to the sound of an alarm clock in the other. Actually, I slept on the floor, and on a mat made of dried grass, if the luxury of a mat was available. I slept soundly. I had to find a bed to lie on in the other world. If I remember correctly, the bed, elevated from the ground, made me feel initially nervous and insecure. I feared falling off the bed. I would prefer to lie on the solid floor even today, after so many years of experience of the bed, if I could have my preference. My actual breakfast consisted of a plateful of congi in those days, but my counterpart had orange juice, cereals, bread toast and milk or coffee—I couldn’t include bacon and eggs, no matter what. During meals at home, my family ate silently, as speaking was forbidden during meals, chewing every mouthful of food thirty-two times to enjoy the full taste and value of it, but I could talk on all kinds of issues from family to politics and have heated debates as if food was secondary and it little mattered how it tasted. Sometimes, the debates became so heated that they transitioned from verbal to physical and plates went flying all around. I spoke mostly to meet my primary needs in Kannada, but I had to learn to say “Good morning!” and other forms of greetings, depending on the time of the day, and say “Sorry” and “Thank you!” at every turn. It made no sense to me to ask the question “How do you do?” and get an identical question “How do you do?” in answer to the question. I could hardly bring myself up to say routinely “Very well, thank you” even when I was confused by all the new exercise, hurting, hungry and tired. In the new world, I had to announce who I was by name at the start of the conversation and remember to ask the name of the person I addressed, something impolite in the world in which I lived where propriety required I announce the name of the village from where I came from and which proud father’s son I was.
I went to a school where the medium of instruction was Kannada. I did pretty well in all subjects, including English. I had one hour of English, six days a week, and for about nine years. Time to time, the methods of instruction changed according to the statements of my teachers after they returned from a short refresher course, but I hardly noticed any changes. Similarities were more striking: whatever the methods, there were periodic tests and daily home assignments. I learnt to identify parts of speech, change a simple sentence into a complex or compound sentence, rewrite a sentence from the active voice into the passive, turn direct speech into the indirect, fill in the blanks with appropriate conjunctions and prepositions, make sentences using given phrases and idioms so as to bring out their meanings, and translate passages from Kannada into English and vice versa. I passed English with high scores.
When I went to college where the medium of instruction was English, I did not follow the lectures in Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics, yet the only subject in which I scored good marks was English, as I was well-versed in grammar and vocabulary. My ambition to become a medical doctor or an engineer crushed, I joined an undergraduate program in English to become an English teacher. The popular notion at the time was that really bright students chose English for study so it didn’t hurt my pride to accept the second or third choice of a major subject which became available to me. This was when patriotic Indians were shouting Angrezi hatao, throw English out; and when in some parts of India people were committing self-immolation against imposition of Hindi as an official language of the country, as Hindi looked as foreign to them as English. It was a time when the mother tongue reigned supreme. English learning/ teaching, however, did not become subversive underground activities. In fact, English enjoyed a prestige difficult to explain in the alien land.
I received an excellent training in literature, British, American and the Commonwealth. I studied all the great authors as if they were my own and the several movements and eras in literature and criticism. I had teachers who could recite The Paradise Lost and Tennyson’s In Memoriam. I did one better: I committed to memory a good part of Chaucer’s Prologue to The Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English. It was believed that a strong dose of literature automatically produced proficiency in the use of language so the program did not include teaching of English language per se. I could not say for sure that this happened, although the long study of literature from Beowulf to The Waste Land shifted the grounds under my feet. I had only the words of the poets to believe in the sweetness of Nightingale’s song and the beauty of the daffodils; the power of their words left me in no doubt of their veracity. Still the bird and the flowers were alien and it strained my imagination to give reality to the objects. I wished I had Aladdin’s lamp. Finally, I comforted myself with the words “Heard melodies are sweet and those unheard are sweeter.”
The power of words did give me entry to the desires and disappointments of the human heart and the complex workings of the species’ mind. I had the words, phrases, and lines of scores of authors to fit for recitation on various occasions, but I lacked the skills to express my thoughts and feelings in English fully. I strung words together and constructed sentences after considerable thought, but the sentences did not seem to breathe life, despite the care taken to construct them making sure that one thing agreed with another. They were dead on arrival, asphyxiated. After graduation, I became a college teacher of English still shaky in the language of the literature I taught.
Luckily, I got a Fulbright scholarship to do graduate study in the United States. Four years at the University of Indiana, Bloomington, Indiana, and living in a country where English was spoken helped me stand firmly on the ground. It took me many more years of reading, writing, and teaching to gain a comfortable degree of proficiency in English. In fact, I learnt most of what I know today from teaching Freshman English classes in college: I had to learn in order to be able to teach. Gradually, I gained a good degree of communicative competence to deserve the title of an English teacher. No longer did I have to resort to the common habit of airing contrary opinions and theories in an assertive manner to demonstrate that I had a thinking mind.
I must acknowledge that my linguistic competence is limited mostly to the field of critical analysis of literature and writing skills. I do keep well-informed about Washington politics and can talk about it with greater ease and forthrightness than many of my neighbors in Washington, where I currently live. How many people have, for example, watched the entire impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton, as I have, and with pain? I can offer my opinions on the opinions of the US Supreme Court on a host of issues. But I would come out hungry if I strayed into a high class restaurant to eat. I would fumble if I enter into a conversation about market trends, the rising and falling of share prices, and the goings- on in Wall Street. I don’t date, dance or drink so these areas are off limits. I keep mum during the American football season. I have no ear for music, rap or country. I refrain from talking about the latest car makes and models. I lead a simple life, drive an old car discarded by my daughter, buy mostly used stuff, believe in the theory “don’t fix what ain’t broken,” and pay all my bills before they are forwarded to collection companies. I would guess experience of individuals everywhere remains limited to certain spheres of life so I don’t feel handicapped in any serious way. Besides expert critical analysis of novels, poems and plays, I do occasionally write short stories in English and have earned a name among friends as a passable writer.
Instead of asking students to forswear the mother tongue in EFL/ ESL classes, it is likely to help them learn a foreign language by giving them an idea that they can use their mother tongue to learn the target language. After all they speak in different ways in their own language depending on to whom they speak at home and at school. If they approach a foreign language as one other way, albeit different from anything they have known, of using language to negotiate with the world, they are likely to acquire the foreign language with fewer tears. In their own language they know how to state, for example, two or more ideas equal in importance in a certain context, or one more important than others, similar or different, and then how these distinctions could be shown using different sentence structures; similarly how ideas could be developed, unity and coherence among ideas established, and transitions handled; how clarity is the main aim of communication; and how one could use the words to paint, sing, and dance. These concepts are transferable from language to language. The goal is to build on the student’s experience of the first language acquisition rather than in contrast, and in addition to the first language, leaving his/her food habits and others intact. Learning a second language should be like taking a second spouse, rather having a lover, while still remaining married, under the full protection of the constitution, whatever a country’s marriage laws are.
I enjoy a kind of peculiar freedom in writing in English which leaves me often in doubt whether I could/ would speak the same thoughts in my mother tongue. Writing/ speaking in English seems to have become a kind of play. I combine words and ideas from different worlds and produce a strange concoction. I don’t know if it is to the taste of readers who have their favorite drink in Coke or Seven Up or plain bottled water.
Today I use English for all practical and impractical purposes. Rarely do I speak or write in my mother tongue. At home my wife speaks Hindi and so does my daughter, as Kannada is Greek and Latin to them; both shush me if I try Hindi. I worked in different places in India away from home, and the only language I could use in these places for communication was English. I didn’t have time to learn the local languages because before I settled in one place I saw a greener pasture and moved there. Probably, my tongue may loosen up to speak in Kannada, if I find someone to talk to in the language in Washington, DC. I am sure that there are people here from Bangalore, but I have not sought them out.
Years of study of English language and literature and a significant period of stay in the US have not been without an impact on my values, beliefs, and outlook. I do, of course, still see the world as maya and all my suffering as a fruit of my karma. I like to be quickly cremated when I die. (I am warned that if I die in my present place of residence, I would have to wait at least four days in a morgue to get my papers completed for having left the world for good.) I would love to die in Benares or Hardwar, but that seems most unlikely to happen.
Other than these core values, I have learned that there are other ways of looking at life. For example, I don’t believe in heaven and I don’t wish to take rebirth, which might seem to contradict my core values. I do not, however, deny the great social value of such beliefs and would enthusiastically support institutions which propagate them, if this helps remove somewhat the contradictory impression. Left to myself, I would make no attempt to reconcile all my contradictory views and positions. I would recommend to others not to try to smoothen all the wrinkles of my personality to make me a consistent character Emerson has warned against: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” To continue where I left, I believe that I am just a bundle of molecules, and nothing would be left of me except the sixty or so chemicals like carbon that make up my body. I could not say things of this kind in my own mother tongue, however hard I might try. I wouldn’t find words to say it, hindered probably by the fear that my well-wishers might think that I have gone insane and dispatch urgent messages to Lord Yama to take me out. All this makes my vision of life quite colorful. I see life as Shelley saw it “a dome of many-coloured glass.”
If English made me feel toothless and clawless for a while, I have finally been able to make the language serve me in my pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.
Krishnamoorthy Aithal’s short stories have appeared in Critical Quarterly, Short Story International, Unlikely Stories, Long Story Short (where his “Enter, Search, Select, Click” appeared as the STORY OF THE MONTH for February 2012), Journal of Postcolonial Societies and cultures, Indian Literature, New Quest, and Contemporary Literary Review. Manuscripts of two volumes of his short stories One in Many and Many in One are making the rounds of publishing houses. Besides creative writing, he has published articles on a wide range of authors and books in scholarly international journals. Currently, he teaches English at Potomac College, Washington, DC, and National College, Falls Church, VA.