Like a gift from heaven—the whole H.M.S. Pinafore is being played on the radio! It was performed sometime in my schooldays, but I cannot remember when or where, and if I had a part, and what was the part. But I can sing along though it was over fifty years ago, and I made our children at Southpoint do an adapted version of part of it—but that, too, was over twenty years ago.
I sail the ocean blue
And my saucy ship’s a beauty
I’m a soldier man and true
And attentive to my duty
He’s a soldier man and true
And attentive to his duty
And I am one of the millions blessed with the knowledge of the beauties of the literature and music of the British Isles—through no effort of mine. I often think of the chain of which I am a link, and I begin with Mahadev Govind Ranade as the first link, seven generations ago.
Yesterday I picked up A Winter’s Tale since I had gone to a performance of it a week ago. First I lost myself in the superlative Introduction by, I thought Frank Kermode, only to discover that it was by a professor at Tufts. She summed up the language, life, theatre context, and plays of Shakespeare in a concise way that kept one glued to it until its last word.
But what I thought as I began the play, all armed and equipped by the wonderful Introduction—oops, here comes the Admiral, KCB
And we are his sisters and his cousins and his aunts
His sisters and his cousins
Whom he reckons by the dozens
His sisters and his cousins and his aunts!
So I am reading my Shakespeare and I am suddenly thinking, how did I come to know English as my own language? Now, reader, you may find this stuffy and boring, but understand, it’s the question that occurs to me so often because of my multitude of dealings with those who would love to know English and they just can’t.
No one did anything specific with me. It just happened. I remember being eight or so and holding a Girls’ Annual in my hands. This is one of those bound volumes with pictures of pretty English girls in frocks such as no Indian tailors can make, walking on the cliffs and moors. Then they go back to their boarding schools. I can remember a time when I held the book—and I couldn’t read it. I turned the pages. I looked at the pictures. I could not read it. I can remember a time when I went into the ‘box’ in a cinema hall, some English movie or the other showing—and I could not understand it. Whereas with the book, it’s enough of a pleasure to even hold it and feel it, with the movie, my eight year old me is annoyed, and the darkness around holds no compensation.
So, what happened? It’s important to know. If I can pinpoint the secret, then we’ll know how to produce the same results for everyone, won’t we? But—there is no secret. I held the book every day and one day I could read it. They gave me books on every birthday (there are some I never did read, that I still have not read—Water Babies). They expected me to read without a word being said on the subject. I had time galore. Nothing was offered to me to do with my time—just my room, my time, and the books. My father owned a lot of books and there were charming shelves of books in our house, but I never noticed them until I was considerably older. Yet, they were there in the background, and must have made books a part of life.
And my school? Didn’t my school teach me to read? I am afraid that when I think of my school at that age, I remember the desks, wooden and solid, opening to disclose a room for all one’s books and pencils and ink pot. I remember the classroom, full of girls, stuffed with them, but still like home. I remember my teacher, one thin, one stocky, both of them strict but also occasionally bemused. Miss Wilson and Miss Cariappa. I can remember the feel of my tunic and my tie. But I can remember no lesson. I can remember no activities—there weren’t any. The homework made more of an imprint but is also clouded and imprecise. No, I have no clue how I learnt to read.
Persistence must be the key. And desire. And a certain taking-it-for-granted.
Another thought crosses the mind. Again, without any desire to do so, I am in the midst of this east-west thing, the albatross around my neck. The thought is that at precisely that time of my life, suppose there had been no English, and it was my mother tongue, Hindi, that I was learning, getting books to read in, staring at the illustrations of, and dreaming about? What would have happened?
Well, let’s keep it for another day. For today, for this evening, I am crazy with happiness that English is my language.
I need to have HMS Pinafore belong to me!!
For he himself has said it
And it’s greatly to his credit
That he is an Englishman
In spite of all temptation
To belong to other nations
He remains an Englishman!
Ah, fickle heart. Fickle politics.