Umairbhai and English

By Swastika Jajoo, Celebrating the Arts – Literature

He fell over his own words multiple times
before telling me
hesitantly
‘I taught English for 32 years, here in the village school. Not hi-fi.
Regular stuff. Not like your kind of English’

English came to him as a monster with bared teeth.
In grade eight, for the first time,
he was introduced to the mystery of the English alphabet,
all monsters dressed in magic
that cast spells
over his being
and left him sleepless on most nights.

He felt a little bit of himself
being sacrificed at the altar of this language
that was forced to make homes in his bones
but never smelled of home.

‘My teacher couldn’t speak English well. No one understood, really’,
he tells me, his eyes alight
with the strangeness of his past.
He is old now, old enough
for the homes inside him
to be creaking and cracking,
old enough for him to have forgotten
the first time he constructed
a grammatically correct sentence.

But he remembers it.
‘Time etches some tales
like destiny lines on my palm’, he says,
stammering a little bit.

He was in grade ten
when he claims to have made his first sentence:
‘It was a perfectly sound, well-oiled sentence
and there were so many sentences
to come later in life’

He was fascinated that I was studying English Literature,
fascinated
by how quickly I made sentences,
‘fluency’ he asked ‘how does one ever become so fluent?’
Then came a volley of other questions
I answered in the affirmative
and each time I said yes
I felt a little guilty, as though
I was getting something I never deserved.

Do I study drama?
Yes I do.
Shakespeare.
Yes, Shakespeare too.
Do I know of Keats and Wordsworth? And there was one more…yes…Shelley?
Yes, we’re studying their work this semester.
Do I have big classrooms and good teachers?

Yes, I do.
These names, I know, will mean more to him
that they will ever mean to me.

‘I wish I could’ve studied more, you know. Read more’
he told me, with a look of resignation,
‘But there are the fields to look after.
Even after retirement, I must take care of the cows
and ensure the bhindi is picked, washed, packed, sent.’

‘Can I take a photo of you?’ I asked,
readying myself to point the camera at him.
‘Oh yes. Make me look professor-ly.
I taught English for 32 years. Did I tell you that?’

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