‘Glitter Girls’, ‘Ret Samadhi’ and Musings on My Reading Journey

For about a month before I started proper school, my parents sent me to a local daycare cum play school so that I could get used to staying away from home. On account of joining a well-known public school, most of my classmates in nursery had attended two years of playschool. This meant that I started from a level of disadvantage. I still vividly remember the day we started joining letters to form words – cat, dog, pot etc. I could not do it while children my age were easily answering and reading the words.

I will never forget the feeling of inadequacy that came over me in that instant. English never came naturally to me owing to this disadvantage, and also the fact that I was not familiar with it, having spoken Hindi at home since childhood. One of the major reasons that I started conversing in English as fast as I did was because my best friend did not know Hindi, so English became our medium of communication. Mine broken, speckled with uncertainty, and hers impeccable, sprinkled with a foreign accent.

My classmates not only started forming words and reading before me, but their comprehension skills also developed before mine. In Class 2, I remember we had started having a library period and were allowed to borrow books. Unfamiliar words would throw me off track, and I used to feel lost. By then I was able to ‘read’, but only mechanically – phonetically fit the jigsaw pieces together. I could not understand the meaning of what I was reading, there was a disjuncture between my conversational English skills and reading skills.

Also read: The English Language: I Love It, I Love It Not

My encounter with written words was mathematical – an amalgamation of letters and nothing else. At this time my mother had bought me a book of short stories, I read it desperately, wanting to comprehend it. But only incoherent words stared back at me. When I told her that I had read one story, Mamma happily asked me to tell her what it was about. My brother was also there and I remember being extremely nervous. I started retelling the story almost verbatim. I was even opening and referring to the book from time to time, afraid to miss out on any detail.

My brother, seven years older than me, lacking the patience my mother had, interrupted me and said, “You’re just repeating exactly what’s written in the book. Did you even understand anything?”

Mamma angrily told him to keep quiet and gave me words of encouragement, but the damage had already been done. As tears fell from my eyes, so did my self-esteem. Would I ever be able to read like the other kids in class?

Library class was fun for other reasons than reading. I used to love the low seating in the room, the smell of books, and talking to my friends. One fine day, during library class, I picked up Glitter Girls, because it had a cool cover, and because many of the girls in class had been reading and discussing how amazing it was. I was in Class 3 by then, and still lagging behind. Afraid and anxious, I opened the book when I got home. For the first time in my life, I understood. I do not remember the exact words, but they had made sense. I read the first page over and over again, in shock.

I excitedly waited for Mamma to get home and I shared this achievement with her. What was her reaction? Did I complete the book before returning it to the library? I cannot recall, and none of it matters as much as the fact that in that single moment, I unravelled the possibility of reading English. After this, my reading in Hindi came to a halt. We still spoke in Hindi at home, but I do not think I took out the time to read any Hindi books or texts apart from the prescribed textbooks. I only remember reading Junie B. Jones, Horrid Henry, Nancy Drew, Jacqueline Wilson books and so on. No Hindi authors or titles.

Over time. I also started getting more comfortable thinking and expressing myself in English – at least with my peers and teachers. Hindi, my mother tongue, took a backseat. As I grew older, I knew I wanted to get back to it – reading and writing in Hindi – but it was not until Geetanjali Shree’s Booker Prize win was announced this year that I picked up the original Hindi novel of the English translation Tomb of Sand. Now sitting with Ret Samadhi in my hands, staring at the words, they all appear devoid of any meaning– an amalgamation of letters and nothing else. I am waiting for my Glitter Girls‘ ‘aha!’ moment when my mother tongue starts making sense to me again.

Also read: How Does Mother Read My English Poems?

The point of this piece is not to force Hindi education on everyone. It is to encourage working on maintaining a link with our native languages, whatever they might be. It is difficult to be able to teach all these languages within a school setting, but perhaps a class in the week can be set apart for practising writing and reading in one’s native language. Or at least within the family, efforts need to be made to pursue it. To be able to think in more than one language broadens one’s perspective and adds new meanings.

It is amazing to see the sense of discovery that overcomes my students when they reconnect with their languages by recounting the kinship terminology they use. They are able to trace the influences of Punjabi terms on Gujarati ones, of Malayali ones on Tamil ones – owing to mixed cultures in their families, and due to migration patterns. A few classes after this exercise of discussing one’s kinship terms, a student asked me to recommend some Hindi sociology material to her because she wanted to, like me, connect with the language again.

I was at a total loss, because all my academic training, the repository of reading material, my thoughts, and my sociological vocabulary are in English. Even on researching, I could not find something suitable, so until I do, I have recommended Ret Samadhi. Hopefully, we can revoke our comprehension together. Perhaps reading also needs to be a social activity rather than just a solitary one. Discussing Shree’s flowing poetic prose with another person could ease my comprehension and make reading it even more fun.

I must end by noting my privilege. The ability to read, write and speak in English is a great advantage in India, and it was my privilege which led me to lose touch with Hindi and connect deeply with English.

Shambhavi Gupta is a post-graduate in Sociology, an educator and a classical dancer who likes to read, sing, bake, and write down her thoughts.

Featured image:  Blaz Photo / Unsplash