Personally Speaking … … A recent e-mail took me back to my college days

By K. S. Venkataraman

Editor’s Note: This is a new feature we begin. We invite you to share your personal experiences in your childhood, youth and adult life, as a new immigrant in the US, during travel, or at work. It does not have to be serious. Humor and irony are just as fine — even better. The word count is 600 words max. This write up is 480-words long.

Recently, I received a forwarded e-mail from India whose intent was to make the reader laugh (condescendingly, of course) at the misspelled English words and out-of-syntax construction of sentences by Indians. The e-mail had direct quotes from in which Indian men and women —evidently not well-schooled in the English language — list their expectations from their life-partners. A verbatim example:“Hello i am a good charactarised woman. i want to run my life happily. i divorced my first husband. his charactor is not good. i expect the good minded and clean habits boy who may be in the same caste or other caste accepted.”

Most of the young men and women writing in — I pity these poor creatures — might not have had rigorous training in English grammar or on the orthographic nuances of the English language. So, only with difficulty I could see the humor in these awkward constructions.

Then I wondered how many “modern” Indians can write their expectations of their future spouses in their own mother tongue, or in any Indian language they were schooled in — even with grammar and spelling mistakes?

Sixty years after India becoming a republic, Thomas Babington Macaulay finally succeeded in producing brown sahebs en masse. These “Children of Macaulay,” as my friend Deepak Kotwal of Squirrel Hill calls them derisively, can now mock at their fellow citizens who’re not lucky enough to be born into resourceful families to afford quality English schooling. Will it ever occur to “modern” India that English is not her native language?

This brings back memories from my own journey. I am going back over forty years to my pre-University days at Agurchand Manmull Jain College in Minambakkam near the airport in Madras. In physics and mathematics classes, I had questions needing clarifications. I was from what the Indian upper crust derisively calls the “vernacular” medium, with Tamil as the language of instruction up to high school. Obviously, my English was wanting in every department — vocabulary, grammar, syntax, diction, and pronunciation. (It is better now, even though it could be improved.)

In the class, mentally I would struggle to frame the questions in English and rehearse them sotto voce before airing them, lest I become an object of ridicule in the class. By the time I gathered the courage to raise my hand and ask the question, my teacher would have gone ahead four or five steps in the derivations. I would become even more afraid to ask the question — now not only my English would be seen as bad, but I would also come across as a dimwit for asking the question so late.

So, I never would ask any question even though my looks betrayed my struggles. Seeing my struggle, my physics lecturer, Mr. Srinivasan, one day told me and everybody else in the class, “Paravaillappa. Tamizhileye chollu.” (“It’s OK kid. Say it in Tamil”). My eyes swelled in tears, partly out of embarrassment and partly out of gratitude for Mr. Srinivasan.

This is still fresh in my memory, even after four decades.

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