Monday, February 22, 2016

What’s Written There?

21st February is International Mother Language Day and our blog is hosting a 2 day celebration of languages. A series of blog posts by people from different walks of life - sharing their thoughts on languages, memories and more. International Mother Language Day is an observance held annually on 21 February worldwide to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.

(This post was sent by Menaka Raman. Menaka Raman is helping Pratham Books build an online community for StoryWeaver. She is an amateur runner, amateur writer and amateur mother!).

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When I was 10 years old my family relocated to Madras. We had spent the last 8 years living in a number of countries across the world. And we were finally home. 

I remember quite a few things from that summer. The small one room flat we lived in for a year. The curiosity in the eyes of the other girls in my class (I had hair as short as a boys and wore short shorts and t shirts till my set of uniforms were delivered). The 72 children per classroom. The frequent power cuts which would find all 72 of us sweating away in our thick sack like uniforms. 


It was also the first time I had ever learned a language. As I had already missed out on years of Hindi and Tamil, the only option I had was to take Sanskrit. 

“It’s a high scoring subject. She’ll pass it for sure” relatives assured my mother. 

I joined six months in to the school year, and many of my classmates were already familiar with the devanagiri script. So while they dealt with declensions and conjugations I struggled to remember that ‘A’ looked like a 3 with a line next to it.

Needless to say I failed miserably in my Quarterly exams. I got 22. I still remember the score. It was the first time I had ever failed in anything. The shame was immense. 

So, it was decided that a tutor would be found for me. Someone who could help me catch up and indeed score ‘high marks’ in the next exam. 

Prakash Sir was nothing like what I imagined a Sanskrit teacher to look like. He wasn’t old. He didn’t have a tuft of hair at the back of his head. He didn’t wear a dhoti. 

He was young, drove a Bullet motorbike and wore what we called ‘cooling glasses’ back then.

He was infinitely patient with me. He never made me feel stupid. He made jokes about his own English, and said “I’ll teach you Sanskrit if you teach me English.” 

Prakash Sir taught me Sanskrit from grade 6 to 12. And in those six years I grew to love Sanskrit. It became my favourite subject. Not just because it was high scoring. But because it was beautiful. Because Prakash Sir made it beautiful for me. He loved the language. The word play. The wisdom in a certain verse. The beauty of sentence structures. And he passed that love on to me. 

Learning a language can be a frustrating thing. I see it on my own son’s face as he grapples with and comes to terms with the subtle differences between various consonants in Hindi. I try and make it fun for him. We play Hindi dictionary or word ending. 

But I can’t help but wish he had a Prakash Sir in his life. Someone whose love of a language is so great that they can make a 5th century poet’s work accessible to a ten year old. 

When I look back at all the couplets I learned, funnily enough it’s this one I remember best. And for some strange reason it comes to my mind very often. 

का त्वं बाला 
कान्चन माला 
कस्या पुत्री 
कनकलातय 
किं ते हस्ते 
तालिपत्रं 
का वा रेखा 
क ख ग घ 


Who are you, girl? (1)
Kanchanamala.
Whose daughter?
Kanakalata’s.
What’s in your hand?
A palm leaf.
What’s written there?
Ka Kha Ga Gha.

Legend has it that King Bhoja wanted the court poets to write a poem that ended in Ka Kha Ga and Gha, the first four consonants of the Sanskrit language. Kalidasa, the most gifted among them, met a girl on the street and asked her these same questions and received the same answers which he made into a poem and presented it to the King next day. 

I wish I could remember something more poetic, more profound. But no, this is what I remember. And then, I comfort myself that at least I remember something.

Image Source : Mark Faviell

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