Oh, English!

Laxmi Prasad Devkota | April 12, 2019

Laxmi Prasad Devkota Translated by La.Lit with the support of Samisha Joshi. Text from the 18th edition of the Laxmi Nibandha Sangraha (2010)

When I was eight years old, my brother, who had just passed the Entrance, was earning over Rs. 300 a month as a tutor. He was a role model for me. Mother would affectionately remind me, “You have to study like that, babū! Just like your brother.” I used to fear him, like any adolescent who holds his real-life heroes in awe. He had the demeanour, pride and seriousness of a teacher. I was completely under his sway and my soul would yearn for that golden age – after passing my First, I too would carry a bamboo cane, and be able to lord it over the kids.

Back then, the notion of passing the First was like being on top of the world. I could not see my passion for knowledge climbing any higher. I used to think that being able to rattle away in English was the greatest of achievements and sought to follow the diktat of the wet nurses of English education, “To earn money, study English.” But back then, I did not know the suffering and anxiety a teacher has to bear just to survive this life, and how, even though he sees the vast skies above, he has to keep his soul tethered to the ground.

I kept on studying, I kept on growing. Like the Gosainkunda Lake drawing the waters into itself, my severe obsession with the Entrance took me into the thin cold air and a diet of corn gruel. I didn’t like to play. I was obsessed with the idea that “you have to study to make money”. A child can understand a lot from the anxiety etched on his parents’ faces and, in a poor household, the idea that there is nothing more to life than the pursuit of money is easily impressed upon his spirit. I wanted to become a teacher to earn money. I wanted to light up my house, help my brother and provide for better food at home. I stopped playing because I wanted to pass my exams quicker. I didn’t derive any enjoyment from meals. Like it was intoxicated with ganja, my mind would constantly revolve around Baburam Sir’s geography lessons. I dreamt of the pages of my English textbook, with books as my pillows. During playtime, from four to six in the evenings, me and my younger brother would sometimes lock the doors and windows of our room and sit down to study till the light faded. I would study till midnight and start at five in the morning. This is how I lived for five years for the sake of my First exams.

The course of study was for nine years, but I finished it in five. In those years, I didn’t enjoy my meals, barely looked at myself in the mirror, and along with some competitive friends swore that I wouldn’t even wear shoes until I passed my First. I barely interacted with the world and never showed an interest in contributing to it. I became extremely unpopular among women because I never helped them with the shopping and so on. The notion of passing consumed me. In 1926, I passed my First from Patna University, I could now walk around with a little pride, but I was not satisfied: I wanted to study more and I now yearned for a B.A.

It was only after I crossed Rani Pokhari and joined Tri-Chandra College that the atmosphere there encouraged me to speak up and take part in the debates. Back then, my college friends only knew me to be laconic, deceitful and proud. It was around then that I came under the influence of Wordsworth. I would occasionally write poems in English and Nepali and at times would even show them to my teachers. I also got my first taste of being a Master. I would give tuition for three hours in the morning and evening at one place, and from four to six at another. Meanwhile, I had to study science. But I didn’t study. I would go to class, listen and leave. Twice a week, I would stay home and write poems. Once I got my B.A., I started giving tuition thirteen hours a day. The mild high of “earning money, teaching English, and being a Master” would drive me all across town on my bicycle. I wouldn’t speak Nepali and wouldn’t speak to those who spoke Nepali, but whenever I met someone who spoke English, I would become extremely expressive. I used to think that Nepali had no voice, that it could not express anything, that it was not a language used by the wise. I would stumble when I spoke Nepali, though I had exercised this skill for thirteen years. I would think in English and speak in English. I would appear slow when speaking Nepali, but gained respect when I spoke English. If I spoke Nepali, my students would disrespect me, but if I lectured in English, their proud noses were buried in the dirt. I felt that the Nepali people had not progressed because they lacked an English education. I used to see Pandits as fossils of a past age. I saw them as un-evolved cockroaches who had lived through the long medieval slumber of India, bereft of modernity. I would say to myself, “How satisfied they are!” I was also the son of a Pandit and had learned to appreciate ancient traditions and cultures, but even so, I felt as though there was something lacking. I would say, “Where is their energy? They stick to tradition like whining children after their parents.” Unfortunately, I never had the chance to express these thoughts in English.

I wanted to usher in a new age of progress. What kind of new age? One in which every Nepali could speak English. One in which they could write in English, study books of physics and chemistry and discover new things, apply Marshall’s economic theory to fix society’s problems, an age in which homeopaths knew chemical formulas, where the orbit of people’s happiness expanded, and where Nepalis were able to blaze their worth to the world. I didn’t really know what I wanted to improve.

If I hadn’t picked up the writing habit, I would have become a useless donkey for sure. The pen is what made me, and I slowly came to understand my country, my time and my situation, but English continued to have me translate and copy. My critics called me an Exploiter (someone who becomes rich by turning the creative ideas of others into products), as if I were copying English into Nepali. But I would always be careful not to replicate. There was much I had to delete and remove. My first fight was with the English way of thinking and the way that English shapes thought, and the second was between what I knew and what I did not know, which would always try to sneak its way into class.

That was when I realized the mistake in my education. How we have become translated selves! Our entire educational experience was designed to translate us. We called education anything that shook up our beliefs. We were barred from our native values. We saw literature as separate from our religion and our lives. We looked down upon the simple and illiterate. We had removed ourselves so far from the thoughts and manners of our Aryan traditions but we would still walk among our people with pride, our ignorant ears erect, flashing our spectacles boastfully at the public. We were losing our independence, as if servitude was our nature. We were demeaning our own language.

My real education began only after I left college and started to live life. That was when I realized that education was not to be found in the shell of the university. An educated person was just a person who had swapped the magic of life for the theories of books, one who seeks to place his people in a foreign framework and blindly seeks their progress. All studying meant was to weave a foreign web, to be translated and to translate.

Even in adulthood, our schoolboy mentality corrupts us. We see anyone who studies English as wiser, and we start to appreciate long-winded words from the English dictionary. We hide behind words rather than seek the truth. We compete with each other to see who knows more, using foreign ideas in our hollow discussions. We talk at great length about issues from across the seas, but close our eyes to what is happening around us. We like to hold our heads high among our brethren but the moment we see a foreigner, our heads bow in sycophantic deference. We seem to think that the pinnacle of education for a member of the Aryan race is to speak English and shake hands with the White Man. We want to write in English, while our own literature sounds like a minstrel with a broken sārangi.

I now wonder: what did I get from studying English? On average, we live about 25 years. With 15 years of study, you become a B.A. If you add the 10 years of your childhood, that’s pretty much your life. Education is so structured and such a slow and dull parrot that it only ruffles the surface of our native minds. Our attention only extends to our next meal. We sell our selves for money and sell off our world’s soul. Through our rapacious attitude as teachers, lording it over our classroom desks, we are corrupting our youth. We wrench away the language that comes naturally to them only to make them stutter and stumble. We force them to see the world through the lens of the English language. We are doing them a grave injustice by stifling their natural intelligence with Western ideas. I praise the youths who study this wholeheartedly. Those forced to study English, like tethered oxen, must obviously be unwell. What did these poor wretches get from all that work? Dry grass, no more. Nothing else was written – not the blue ink of these hills nor the green water of these forests.

And that is all there is to being a graduate! Showing off your qualifications based on a piece of paper! Grinding your bones for seventy rupees! Incapable of picking up a bamboo stylus! To be a translation of English, to ruin one’s way of thinking, and in your greed to earn butter for your bread, to be a donkey teaching from morning to evening, creating more donkeys, cheating the world and who knows what else!

For a graduate, Krishna is a king in the old stories. There is no truth in the Gita, Vyas becomes a cheat, Pashupatinath becomes a stone, hejlin becomes sandalwood, tomatoes become acceptable food, man becomes evil, the Puranas become clever threats, the heavens becomes a void, Yamaraj becomes a tall tale, the truth in the Vedas vanishes and our ancestors become fools.

How much do we really know as graduates? It is like the boy who went to draw water from a river, but drowned in his pot. Many people fear to speak in English, let alone write in it. The parrot trained solely to sit for exams is only asked by Saraswati to regurgitate what it has memorized. We reach the limits of our knowledge the moment we leave the exam hall, our passion for learning new things ends. We then dry up like pepper seeds. And then life becomes demanding, rebuking and cheating.

But in this English there is salt, and treats for your children. In English is the 20th century of India, a modern outlook, foreign relations, and the Indian courts. Here the sun never sets and there is swagger and pride. Here are our everyday lives too. What isn’t there in English?

Those who study English get to marry daughters from rich families, get offered chairs in the homes of aristocrats, a wooden staff at school, pride in college, a share in commerce, honour in the Foreign Office, invitations to translate, butter for your bread, prestige abroad, bragging rights at home, a name among friends, fifty rupees an hour, and the world becomes fragrant. Oh, English! You find a job with a fixed rate, you shake hands with the Viceroy, and your vitality sustains us – here, where the wise Pandits are fading away.

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