As an 8-year-old kid, I remember, a little too clearly, my mother fretting over my sentences jumping over each other,
Grammar, a dangerous territory which she dare not trespass, for I would cry at my inability to rote learn its mechanics,
I remember her excusing herself to the bathroom to cry
because the only thing she wanted was for me to speak like I knew English
better than the Hindi we communicated in daily,
The stable future of our middle class-ness resting on my immaculately framed responses to “How are you?” and “Introduce yourself in English”,
On the impressed faces of uncles and aunts who’d crowd me to assess my English-medium education,
And that sigh of relief when they heard not even one skip, not one blur in my language.
It took years of PTA meetings to assure my father, whose first question was about my language,
Several more for me to use English like my ‘Indian’ tongue was its second home,
And I still feel like I am adapting myself to it,
Convoluting my tongue to spell sentences that sometimes slip on themselves,
Picking them up,
Brushing them to check for bruises,
And apologising for the hurt that my accent might have caused.
Yesterday a girl as old as me,
With volumes of struggle in all her bones,
Told me how she was called a ‘savage’ in this language she was trying so hard to befriend,
She told me how she went to her room and picked up a dictionary to check what the word meant,
And how, on realising the meaning she first felt confusion and anger,
But not because of being called savage with a mouth so foreign to her ear,
But that it was in a language so foreign to her mouth that its lexicon just won’t settle on her tongue, no matter how many cushions she pads it with,
And second, she resolved to rinse her mouth with all of English’s words to make the language less bitter on her tongue,
To use ‘their’ language as an armour against the world that prides itself on the mere repetition of words.
She recites some sentences for me,
Trying to navigate the harshness of potential flinches to her broken English,
And I, I feel honey rushing through my own veins,
The same ones which were once coated with the same hunger for this unyielding language.
I see my younger self in her:
Afraid to be interrupted, scared to be laughed at, but most importantly desperate to pronounce these alienating words like they had just been waiting for me to use them.
So when she completes her speech and looks at me for approval, scared,
I tell her she doesn’t need any.
That her language is so full, so complete,
She shouldn’t ever make her grammar a check-list for people to judge her on,
I tell her that it is time for her to own her way of speaking,
And not being afraid of being called a savage because someone thinks her English is broken.
Or that her English is not ‘English’ enough.
Because who are they to decide how much English she requires to mend her tongue?
I tell her all of this and realise how many years it took for me to understand that cutting my syllables down,
And speaking like my fellow English-educated classmates, who’d only make fun of my lack of expression,
Was a part of feeling like I did not belong.
I tell her how much it took to burn the seemingly never-ending bridge between my grasp of English and its allowance,
And how even today a slight lisp never fails to bring the childhood anxiety along with itself.
I tell her all of this to maybe reassure myself that there is no harm to speak with all the hurt,
The lisps, the slips,
Because that is how I learn this language, that is how I make it my own.