Why do I write?
I thought this would be a good question to start with. Here in India, commencement is a sacred event, and so the powerful elephant-headed deity, Ganesha, who removes all obstacles, is invoked, so that the journey ahead is smooth and successful. I thought I would start my journey here on InfoBarrel by asking myself this simple question and retracing my first tentative steps that helped me discover the magic of writing.
It was a warm sunny afternoon. The dry heat of summer had given way to cloudy skies and monsoon rains, but it was sultry and I was struggling in a new school, which I had just joined. The English class had just begun and the teacher wanted us to read out one by one, from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. When it was my turn and I started reading, the whole class burst into laughter. There was no place to hide and so I waited awkwardly while the teacher asked the class to be quiet and asked me to continue. When the class again burst into laughter, the teacher told me to meet him after the class and asked the boy next to me to continue reading.
After the class was over, I went up to my teacher, who was waiting for me.
“You are new, right?” he asked.
“Where were you before this?”
“A school in Hyderabad, Sir-”
“Look here, my boy…… I don’t mean to judge you prematurely – you may be an intelligent boy – but I have to tell you some hard facts. This school places a premium on English-speaking skills – we expect nothing short of the Queen’s English – and as I see it, there’s a huge gap as far as you are concerned. I don’t think we can bridge it, and even if we try to – it’s going to take long, and meanwhile, you will lose confidence. It can even affect your performance in general. There are quite a few good schools in this town which don’t place such a huge emphasis on spoken English, so why don’t you to take a look at them. I can suggest – but first have a word with your father-”
The rest of what he said didn’t register.
I decided that I would improve my English with a vengeance. I started listening to BBC Radio and borrowed Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles from the school library. I had a dictionary next to me to help me plough through the pages of Tess, and by noting down the new words that I came across, added new words to my limited vocabulary. In a few months time, my essays started fetching me decent marks and so my continuation in the school was not at stake. Spoken English was still a problem but it was somehow manageable.
Now that my efforts had yielded a measure of success, I stuck to the proven formula for nearly two years, until I was in the tenth class in yet another English teacher’s class. He was distributing our corrected answer sheets after the latest exam. I had made liberal use of my vocabulary to weave sentences with amazing complexity of structure and I knew in the exam hall itself that I would come right on top and get a special mention for this brilliant essay. Imagine my surprise when I noticed that the teacher had finished calling out all the names and hadn’t mentioned mine. I put up my hand and informed my teacher that I hadn’t received my answer sheet. He didn’t seem surprised at all and merely asked me to meet him after the class. I was now very sure that he must have been so impressed by what I had written that he would be handing it over with some special words of encouragement.
When I met him after the class, he retrieved my answer sheet in no time and handed it over to me. My eyes went to the marks on the top right hand corner – and horror of horrors! – I saw a big zero. I looked at my teacher with a cocky grin and told him there was a huge mistake. I was after all one of the good students in his class.
“It’s a zero, young man” he said with finality.
“B-b-but how can it be?” I mumbled.
“Very simple – I couldn’t understand a word of what you wrote -”
“So why should I be penalized, Sir? I should be rewarded-”
“Who do you write for, young man?”
I was blank as all this was too startling.
“I’ll tell you, young man. Think about it. You actually write for the reader. And in this case the reader – that is me – didn’t understand a word – so you have failed to communicate and deserve nothing but a zero.”
I went away disheartened and it took a few months for the sense in this perceived injustice to sink in. When it did, my writing slowly changed and I started connecting with my readers.