I. Reading English with Chanachur*

Read at your own risk, because there is no telling where it could land you. 

Childhood is almost synonymous with unlimited free time. And I used to use some of it to read anything that happened to fall in my hands – sometimes with outcomes that were not entirely predictable. Take for example my reading English while eating chanachur.

Bangladesh was still East Pakistan and I was happy being a 6th grader. But my parents started getting worried about my future job prospects. They thought it would do me much good to go to a different, prestigious high school. The process was highly competitive and included tough enrollment tests. I was a reasonably good student and was not too worried, except for one matter. My school was a Bangla medium school, meaning everything was taught in my mother tongue Bangla, whereas the new high school taught in English.

Don’t get me wrong, we at my Bangla school had English too. But the English we learned was pretty basic of sorts. I still remember showing up for a final English exam at my old school and wondering why a colorful umbrella was hanging from the door frame. It turned out that the tougher part of the exam consisted of the teacher pointing at the umbrella and asking “what is that?” And if you were able to respond that it is an umbrella rather than a umbrella then you did pretty well.

To my parents’ relief I did very well in the enrollment tests, including in English. “How did you do so well in English?” asked my mother in puzzlement. I explained to her that a big part of the English test consisted of reading a long text and then answering multiple questions. Usually I’d be in deep water. But fortunately I already knew the text! How? Just a few days before the test we were visiting my maternal grandparents. And someone had bought chanchur from the streets as an afternoon snack. After the snack was over, I had sat down with the snack package and did what I usually did with written stuff. In those days you see, street foods were packaged in recycled book pages. It just happened that those pages contained exactly the same text that was in the test! Good for me, you say? Not quite; not if you were in my skins, as you’ll see.

The new high school had two parallel 7th grade sections – one for the English medium pupils and the other for the rest. Thanks to my good English scores I was placed in the first one. Things were fine on the first day until the English period began. A lanky, stern looking, middle-aged Englishman walked in. He was Mr. Simpson, our English teacher. We said “good morning sir” in unison. He bade us to sit down, and started his class.
Until that day I had never spoken with a native English speaker, let alone be taught by one. As he started speaking I realized that this was no umbrella stuff, but I had to give him the benefit of doubt that he spoke proper English. I have no recollection of what he taught or what he talked about. I do remember though, that I succeeded in avoiding drawing undue attention during the entire period. Then towards the end of the class Mr. Simpson gave a dictation test. He collected the papers and left without doing any real harm.

The next day was different. He came back with the graded papers. Mr. Simpson had a unique way of grading. Every paper starts with a balance of 20, and he subtracts one point for each spelling mistake. You see the problem? You have only a limited upside but an abyss as downside. I am convinced that I had written what I had heard Mr. Simpson say, but apparently that was not what Mr. Simpson had dictated. I do not remember what my score was. My psyche has gone on autopilot to self preservation mode, and erased the score from my memory, and thereby protected me from a childhood trauma with potential long-lasting consequences. All I remember is that my score was in the rarefied negative territory.

Fortunately the school administrators were not heartless. After a short discussion with my parents they moved me to the other section. That’s where I remained until I could recuperate.

*) A variable mixture of spicy dried ingredients, which may include fried lentils, peanuts, chickpea flour noodles, corn, vegetable oil, chickpeas, flaked rice, fried onion and curry leaves