“What games did you play at school today?” I asked (in Tamil) the sixth standard boy from our neighbouring farm, situated across the river. He goes to a government high school in the next village. He comes over to our place, often, with his younger sister, who is in fourth standard. They are vibrant children, bustling with activity, helping us with planting saplings and watering them, even on days when we couldn’t visit the farm. Our daughter’s first friends at the village.“We didn’t have any PT period today,” he replied glumly.
“Oh, tell me what games did you play during the class hours?”
“I don’t play any games inside the class…I listen to the teachers”
That made my next question, which was the original intention anyway, easier to shoot.
“So, what did you study at school today?”
“An English poem,” he answered.
“I love poetry. Whose poem was it?”
“Do you remember any line from the poem?”
“No, I have to see the text book,” the boy was getting jittery.
“Ok , tell me any one word from the poem,” I persisted for a bit more.
“Do you know what the poem was about?”
“…,” the whiteness of his two large front upper teeth flashed through the uncomfortable smile.
“Does your teacher explain the poem in English or Tamil?”
I was surprised.
“Do you understand English?”
“No,” the answer came promptly.
“Get me your book tomorrow. I will teach the poem in Tamil.”
He seemed happy.
“Did you read the book that I gave you? Did you understand the stories?” We had presented him with a Tamil story book for his ear-piercing ceremony, held last week.
“Yes,” he cheered up.
Now, his sister chipped in, with some strange actions with her hands:”We didn’t have our regular classes today. They taught us words s*ell.”
I heard it as smell. It didn’t make sense, obviously.
“ka-a-tch. Catch,” she droned with the typical phonics sounds. Oh, she meant ‘spell’.
“Did they teach you spelling? How do you spell catch?”
I spent sometime guiding her through “t’, ‘tch’ and ‘catch’.
“Anna, what is the meaning of ‘little’?” she spurted out suddenly.
“Little means ‘kutty’.”
“Yes. Can you now tell me what is the meaning of little girl?”
“No, little girl.”
“Little means kutty. Girl means ponnu. What does a ‘little girl’ mean? You just have to join the two words,” I repeated in a variety of ways to no avail. Her brother also didn’t have an answer.
“Don’t be shy. Tell the answer boldly,” their father said. He is unlettered but has an extensive knowledge about farming. He is the village priest at a local temple and tills the temple lands. When I had asked him, a couple of hours earlier, if he intended to continue with the education of his children, he had replied in a firm affirmative. I looked at him hopefully.
“Payyannu sollumaa (Say, it is a boy),” he said, feigning confidence.
“No, no. Little girl means kutti ponnu. Now tell me, what does a ‘little boy’ mean?”
After a few more errors, they arrived at kutti paiyan. Then we moved on to little dog, little cat. Finally, they seemed to have got a hang of little-something and rushed happily across the river – dry but for a small stream, overflowing from the check dam.
Thankfully, both these kids are still studying in Tamil medium. I shudder to think of the day when their schools will also be converted to English medium. English is certainly compounding the problems but the problem is not merely with English. We are faced with an entire educational system that alienates the rural children from their surroundings and knowledge systems. More needs to be written on this (and done about this).
But, for now, we, the English speaking elite, can go on belaboring about how we want our kids to compete with these children on a so-called ‘equal footing’ in a ‘meritocratic system’.