How my mother learned to embrace her words
When I think about my mother’s tryst with the English language, the first thing that comes to my mind is a scene from my school days. I was in class 4 at that time and my mother was sitting with me. Across the desk sat my class teacher. It was the dreaded day of Parents-Teacher assessment. My teacher was telling her about my progress in class in English. I distinctly remember my mother’s hands resting on the table; she kept fidgeting with her palms. She would question him in Hindi and he answered her back in English. I was perplexed. It kept going on like this, a volley of words in English and Hindi.
Now when I think about that day, I wonder what were they discussing and what was the point of it all? She couldn’t understand him, and he refused to accommodate her. Sometimes, I wish to go back in time and question him angrily on his behaviour: “Why can’t you simply answer in Hindi? Can’t you see that she is not comfortable, that she can’t understand you?”
I wonder if this is where it all started from, her struggle with this foreign language.
My mother has always struggled with English. Her small library is full of English-speaking guides, and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t see one of them on her bedside table. We would save all my English texts and workbooks for her to practice. They helped her understand when she listened to someone speaking in English, but that knowledge never fully translated into her ability to speak the language fluently. She was not consistent with it though. And I can’t blame her. Her priorities shuffled between her work in her office and a patriarchal household where she could never find time for herself.
I remember her phone calls that I would receive in the middle of the day when I was in college. She would call me from her office, and, in hushed voices, ask me to compose an email that she could send on behalf of her boss to their clients. “Achcha sa, badiya sa” would be her criteria of how the letter should be. I now cringe when she says this, warn her even before she could utter the phrase, but she would still do it, teasing me.
Another incident comes to my mind when I think about my mother’s relationship with English. Many years ago, she and I went to the admission office of a college. I wanted to know more about their graduation courses. The staff members asked me some questions, and I answered them in English. I can’t recall what they asked or what I answered. But I remember my mother’s proud face, her shining eyes, her face light. Her daughter had won the battle that she had been fighting for such a long time.
My mother recently became the president of a social welfare club in Dehradun, and I couldn’t be more proud of her. As part of her duties, she has to write reports of every activity that they conduct through their club. For the first few reports, she would nag me to write them in English. One day, tired from a long day at work, I snapped at her, “Do them yourself, and do them in Hindi”. She made a face. “Why do you think that achcha sa, badiya sa can only be in English? Why can’t it be in Hindi? Why are you letting yourself be defeated by English? Write in Hindi,” I challenged her. “Ashi, please help me, na!” she replied, and we argued back and forth. I admitted half a defeat that day, for you see, I did write the report for her, but I wrote it in Hindi. Even with language change, I could still see that she was relieved, for of course, it was good writing. It matched her criteria.
I’ll admit that my mother is my biggest cheerleader. Her encouragement has bandaged my hurt. Her criticism has made me re-learn my skills. Her gentleness has smoothed my jagged edges, Her scoldings have made me more grounded. Her confidence has made me confident. But I often wondered why she couldn’t be more confident in her own language. What made her apprehensive while writing those reports for her club. Why achcha sa, badiya sa didn’t apply to her writing?
Reflecting on this incident, I realised that her achcha sa, badiya sa had nothing to do with the language, but how you articulate words and convey them; the tone of the sentences, the length of the composition, and the warmth/sternness that you would bring to your words.
I have now become more patient with her nagging, because I finally understand her and how she feels. I understand her hesitance in composing a letter or a report, in choosing the correct words. I understand how she feels when words fail to describe the emotions you want to convey, the story you wish to weave, the incident you want to recreate. I understand her fears, and wish that I could be more gentle and empathetic towards her. Because she is not helpless. She is capable of bringing more faith, warmth and love in her words, more than her husband or her daughter. All she needs is the reassurance that the only thing that matters is the way a word or sentence is conveyed; language is but a tool that you wield at your disposal.
That incident brought a change in her. Now, she writes the reports herself in Hindi. She doesn’t even prompt me with it. But that doesn’t mean that she has stopped calling me in the middle of the day, asking to compose a letter for clients or send screenshots of an email she couldn’t decipher. I still help her with the monthly reports for her club. But I am proud of her, for she is now using her own language as a tool to express herself. She no longer lets herself be defeated by the foreign language that she wanted her daughter to be absolutely fluent in, so that her daughter never sits in front of her child’s class teacher, fidgeting with her palms, unable to understand the conversation, but still keeping a brave face.