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English, Vinglish: What if nothing held our mothers back?

Shalini Langer writes: Despite the halo built around them, or perhaps because of it, mothers of my mother’s generation were perhaps the easiest to overlook as people in their own rights.

The sport that she is, mother never hides the fact that her academic career ended with a ‘Compartment’ in English, in her final year graduation.

IT’S NOW a year and more since three generations of my family — parents, children and my husband and I — were forced into enforced proximity due to the lockdown. Anybody with both parents and children who are growing older knows that the romanticism around lockdown love notwithstanding, it can strain one’s sanity.

However, as my mother put it the other day, perhaps “we would never have spent such time together otherwise”. With my daughter growing faster and faster into her teens, more and more resentful of her mother, I know what she means.

Despite the halo built around them, or perhaps because of it, mothers of my mother’s generation were perhaps the easiest to overlook as people in their own rights. Houses ran magically without an acknowledgment of their efforts (I know now how much), and they didn’t expect any either. In this period, I have asked mother often that, given a chance, would she have got married. She says she has never considered that question.

Yet, there is one lingering rancour — and I was reminded of it again in the wake of the government unveiling its New Education Policy with emphasis on teaching in the mother tongue; and when India’s IITs announced recently that 11 regional languages were set to enter its hallowed carridors.

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The sport that she is, mother never hides the fact that her academic career ended with a ‘Compartment’ in English, in her final year graduation. Marriage happened, she moved, and never got around to clearing the exam.

She remembers the day father came to meet her. He was in Jalandhar to “see” another girl, and was directed to meet my mother too, “just in case”. She was told to hurriedly get ready and, she recalls, she put on a “firozi (sky blue) kurta and churidar”.

They sent letters to each other over their brief engagement. Mother’s regret was that father wrote in English. Mother would go to her best friend to help frame a reply back, and in those shared confidences was forged a friendship that endures 50 years later.

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Photos over the years show mother as a slight girl in a “bell-bottom suit”, riding a horse, smiling into the camera, her long hair often open.

Photos also show that girl receding over the years. Behind age, weight, and lately, a growing buzz of OCD. I sometimes wonder whether she thinks of the days her angry father had to drag her in as she played out on the streets into the night — once almost losing a leg playing hopscotch despite an injury — and of the days she cycled to college because her friend wanted to. She never forgets to mention how she once almost ran over an elderly man, especially his look of horror.

She was expected to wrap up household chores before leaving, practically raise her youngest brother, fetch water from a handpump outside in the mornings, and some evenings, make tandoori rotis at a saanjha chulha (community stove).

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If she wonders how things might have turned out had she had the same opportunities as my sister and I, nothing to hold her back from her books, she has never said a word. She takes pride in our “achievements”, and tries to hold a conversation gamely with my sister’s American kids. Carrying forward her almost childish enthusiasm for getting clicked, she is lately learning to take photos on her touch phone.

And yet, mention that exam, and there is that girl again. Like the other day, when my daughter handed over a poem to her to read, from her English test. Mother gave it a shot, reading haltingly and loudly, and sharing the hearty laugh that my daughter and I broke into.

Then I turned around and asked her that one question which I am sure she wishes more people would ask. A question upending everything the world thinks it knows about her — sealing the casual cruelty of our language bias. For, she is the girl who grew up knowing Punjabi and Hindi, learnt Dogri, travelled to far corners of the country and managed well even in a smattering of Tamil.

How much would you get in math, mother, I asked her. She grinned, ear to ear, “Poore bata poore (full).”

This column first appeared in the print edition on July 25, 2021 under the title ‘What if nothing held our mothers back?’. National Editor Shalini Langer curates the ‘She Said’ column

First published on: 25-07-2021 at 03:45:39 am
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