If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Of English and alu paranthas

It was a wide-bodied jet, a Boeing 777. In the “cattle class”, there were ten seats in a row, four in the middle and three each on the sides, with two aisles separating them. I had an aisle seat on the right. Between the window and me were an elderly Haryanvi couple, returning from holiday in Stamford, where their daughter lived. Within minutes of introduction and exchange of pleasantries, the husband, let’s call him Rampal, invited me (and my wife who was not accompanying me) to his home in a village near Sonipet, and promised paranthas made with the finest buffalo milk ghee. After spending a month in the United States, I felt I was already in India. Such an offer was unimaginable from an American. An American would never know the joy of inviting a complete stranger home, or of “feeding broken biscuits to street dogs”.

I knew I wouldn’t travel to Sonipet to eat paranthas, however fine the ghee might be. And my virtual host too knew it as fact. But I am sure his offer was genuine. At that moment, he would have imagined me as a guest in his house. A golden wheat field with water gushing out of a pipe, and tall bony men and women with high cheek bones flashed before my eyes. So I said, ‘Han ji! Zaroor jayenge.’

Rampalji was a retired secondary school teacher and his wife, a homemaker. Their children were well-placed and his family had houses in Sonipet, Chandigarh, and New Delhi. A relaxed person, he was pleased with life and exuded the confidence that comes alongside success. He spoke absolutely no English, like many educated people from the North.

Across the aisle on my left was a young woman with a baby in a bassinet hooked to the wall in front. She was tall, lean, beautiful, in jeans and a white top. She was travelling alone with the baby. She had obviously noticed the book I was reading and spoke to me in Bangla, ‘Kaku, can you please look after my son for a few minutes? I’ll go to the toilet.’

Sonny was remarkably quiet and needed no looking after. His mother came back, thanked me, and took her seat. Then she started chatting with me. She was from a small town near Kolkata and had done Bachelors in Commerce before getting married and joining her husband in New Jersey. She came out as a competent, smart young woman. I liked the simple and forthright way she talked. I also felt the sadness that every man over fifty must have felt at some time or other. She obviously had obviously taken me to be a harmless old fogey.

A little later, an air-hostess handed over disembarkation cards to us. The girl across the aisle approached me again, presently, with a touch of embarrassment, ‘Kaku, could you please complete the form for me?’

As I filled in her form, I thought of the terrible state of English teaching in Bengal. Why, after studying English for eight to twelve years at school and after three years of college, an otherwise confident girl could not fill one of the simplest forms in English?

After I was through with her form, Rampalji gave me a shy smile and asked me to fill his and his wife’s. When they were done, he called a steward and asked for a stamp pad. The steward gave a puzzled look and said, ‘Why do you need a stamp pad, sir?’

Raising his left thumb and pointing at his wife with his right, Rampalji said, ‘Angutha chhap!’

Air India apparently doesn’t include the stamp pad among necessary passenger amenities. The steward replied in Hindi, ‘Sir, you sign for bhabiji. That should be fine.’

My gloomy thoughts about the implications of a school master’s wife being unlettered were interrupted by a delightful, sumptuous dinner served by the much maligned national carrier. After dinner, bhabiji took out some alu paranthas and achhar as a supplementary dish and offered me a plateful. I took one. It was heavenly.

I watched three movies that night, including Dev Anand’s Guide. For some unfathomable reason, all but one of the songs of the film had been snipped off. Whoever did it, couldn’t delete SD Barman’s Wahn kaun hai tera … because it came along with the credits. It was such a big let down! Guide without its lilting songs was like Agra without the Taj and the Fatehpur Sikri.

The next day, before reaching Delhi, I asked Rampalji casually, ‘Sirji, what subjects did you teach in school?’

‘English’, said he.

[This is a true story, except for the names of persons and places. It was published in The Statesman on 19 November, 2009]


  1. Enjoyed your flight story and the kind but sharp insights into human nature that are so integral to your travelogues.

  2. It is a beautiful story, I don't really know much about how it is in the south but I have generally noticed that fluency in English cannot always be attributed to what you learn at school :-/ There seem to be people who learn more from star world and the movie channels...

    It's good to read your posts again sir, I had deleted my old blog by accident and had to create a new one. Please feel free to visit the link :-)

  3. This is my first visit and I really loved the post. You struck the right chord and that is why I really felt what you wrote. I must say.. that after travelling/observing/understanding the world around me, I feel so proud of India. No matter, how bad or good our command on English language is, we are still the best :)

    btw.. whenever possible, do visit my blogpost. The topic is somewhat similar :)

  4. Good insight as usual (the pun of 'Cattle class' was great).

    Thanks for putting up the video link of Dr. JP's speech, I feel there is a lot one can learn by listening to him.

  5. this is very true, also in kerala. People acquire double MAs, but lack basic communicative English.

    And i endup filling couple of forms, everytime i fly home. TC:)

  6. Thanks, Sucharita, Vaishnavi, Veenitha, Rahul, and ZB. I am happy that you liked it. Vaishnavi, good that you have a new blog. And Vineetha, thanks for your first visit. Pl do come back.

    Although written in a lighter vein, this true story is truly disturbing. Recently, my son has sent the URL of a BBC article that says Chinese are doing better than Indians in learning English! Here is the link: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/8365631.stm

    Perhaps we know why.

  7. This article is also wonderful, as usual.recently while discussing a story,you told me that the end of that story was predictable,but the end of this article is excellent, at least I never imagined that rampalji will turn out to be a English teacher.
    you seem to come across lovely ladies whenever you are traveling(please refer- lucknow episode)


  8. Basu, Thanks for your comments. I am delighted that you liked it. I value the opinion of each one of my readers, but your opinion is important for a different reason, which you know. Similarly, what I write should be important to you because you can check if you backed a wrong horse long time ago.

    As regards the charming young ladies I often meet, I think God above thinks this fellow has hardly any material assets, let me compensate him in some way! Ah! you also remind me of AC!

  9. your insights are a delightful read, you take us on every journey with you!!

  10. :-) am a first timer here. liked the way u wrote this post.. inglis is after all ower mothers tongue naow aphter so meny ears aphter the breeteesh hab lepht indya!! lol

  11. the post is indeed disturbing...English being a global language, a basic knowledge of it is pretty much required..

    nice post...thank you for sharing :)

  12. Many thanks, Sujata, JD and Neha. It's great that new readers are coming to my blog.

  13. I am afraid I am one of those who depends on the husband to fill up the forms, I just freeze every time I fly and feel like an utter nincompoop compared to the smart, confident European women.
    I interact with a lot of educated Bengali women from Kolkata and they lack even basic conversational skills in English. The standard of English is quite pathetic in most places in India.

  14. Husbands are useful things for getting such odd jobs done, aren't they? Thanks for your comments, Aparna.

  15. As usual a real life experience has been made more interesting and enjoyable by your writing. I empathise your sadness you felt being over the hill when you met the young mother.


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