English Vinglish

Poetry slams are not my thing. Not even poems or poetry. I don’t have stage fear but like any other aspiring writer I do fear the fact that people are going to judge me based on what I write. The only way out is to write shamelessly, perform shamelessly, and sometimes just go with whatever may come. At home I grew up in the dialects of Hindi but could never write in the language because writing happened in English. It was fancy. It was not something that everybody could speak in and whoever was fluent and had an accent which had a canny resemblance to the spoken English in Hollywood movies was somebody to look up to.

I heavily liked my school principal, my English teacher, and the monitor of my class.

Whenever they spoke in English, everybody in class listened to them with great admiration. Few of us almost understood what they were saying and most of us kept our eyes and ears open but could never grab the word in one go. They all had a different way of speaking in English. Their voices in English sounded better to me who didn’t know how to pronounce pronunciation.

I spoke in English to myself in bathrooms, roofs, while walking alone, and to Ammi who always felt proud because I could speak in English when nobody else in family could. Sometimes drunk-Appa would but that was only when he was drunk otherwise he would refrain from speaking in English. Maybe he knew his English was not proper. His English became funny after I learnt what Grammar is. I and my brothers started making fun of drunk-Appa’s English secretly. Ammi didn’t know my struggles of speaking in English in class among kids who always knew how to pronounce words correctly.

It didn’t change much till college. In my college interview I asked my interviewers if I could talk in Hindi. It sounds ridiculous if you’re applying for a degree that has English as a major but despite the troubles English has given me, it always gave me an edge over those people who could not understand English. I survived school, high school, with the little English that I knew. I had good marks in the subject too but at the bottom of my heart I knew that whatever I know and understand of English was/is nothing.

Somehow I got accepted in this college and it’s been two amazing years of unlearning things that I thought was English. I started writing in English that I taught myself through English newspapers and dictionaries and Hollywood movies and English Pop songs and borrowed English magazines from friends who bought those magazines only because of semi-nude pictures of women that these magazines had and the little English that I grew up with and the English that was mine before anybody else’s.

But I could never talk in English. The way I thought I could. It was all in my head and it was all messy.

Bad grammar and terrible accent always punctured my will to speak in English until one day in class my professor of English said, “There’s no such thing as pronunciation.” I was never the one who would talk much but that sentence got me like a fish caught in a fisherman’s hook. I wanted to ask him, “How?”

All my life they taught me the correct way to pronounce words. They would shut me up if I’m not being able to and here this man stands who knows a lot more than me about English and says, “pronunciation, accent is all bullshit.”

How are they going to shut me up now?

So I began writing and speaking in the terrible English that was mine and which I knew more than anyone else in this whole world. The English that made me feel privileged at times and unprivileged at the other times but I shamelessly kept writing and speaking in it. Whenever I couldn’t find equivalent words for my thoughts I would say it as the thought would come to me.

The attempt to bridge my thoughts from Hindi to English was through translation of my thoughts but that never satisfied me though. At the centre of my world I understand everything that I speak or write in English but to convey the same to other people is a bit difficult. People in Bangalore have a different kind of association with the words of English. Back in Jamalpur nobody ever bothered if you say Thank you or not. You just had to acknowledge the effort of the person and ‘Thank you’ where I grew up was mostly expressed by a smile. So If you don’t smile to express the gratitude when people are being generous to you in my city, then you have some issues.

I have learnt to Thank-you and wassup people here. Here in Bangalore, I learnt that even when you don’t necessarily smile but say what you really feel – it’s understood. My improper English was understood by many and it’s also true that I have been made fun of for my accent and grammar but do they know that it’s my English that I speak in? It’s the English that has helped me to get through the horror of 11th standard when my parents were called by the principal for the first time ever in my life. All I remember is crying and whining about how difficult maths and other science subjects were to my class teacher in English. My parents never came to meet the principal. And I failed maths.

But I scored well enough in English and the irrational luck that I believe in brought me here for a degree with a major in English. It’s a little difficult for me to let people make fun of the way I speak, the way I cannot pronounce certain words but that doesn’t mean nobody here makes an effort to understand me through my imperfect, hesitant sentences.

I wrote a poem about Ammi a year ago, in English. I knew I wanted to perform but my hesitant accent has stopped me all this while.

“Screw it, I am gonna do this.” I said to myself. My poem was the end of the poetry slam and as soon as I finished I ran away from the venue.  Half an hour later, somebody congratulated me in the department. “You’ve got the second place in poetry slam.”

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