English Winglish

My story is not very different from many other women in India. I come from a very traditional Indian family with conservative values and I was always expected to remain within their bounds. I was educated in a school where the medium of instruction was a local language and not English.

How is all this relevant to this story? Well, you see, after my marriage, I was plucked from a remote village in India and dropped in the Middle East! A land so foreign that I didn’t even know how to say the names of some places, let alone speak the native language. The only way most people communicated in public over there, was by talking to each other in English, and my background put me at an immense disadvantage in such situations. In such a world, where English is lingua franca, you’re going to be totally lost if you don’t know it well and if you don’t know it *at all*, your boat is as good as sunk.

But it wasn’t that bad. With support from my Husband and kids, I slowly honed my English skills. My husband, being a typical husband, busied himself in work and left the family affairs up to me. Taking care of my kids’ studies, meeting teachers during PTMs, interacting with the outer world during grocery shopping or visits to the bank quietly grew my confidence. I started conducting some hobby activities amongst my friends, most of whom converse in English and improved my English like that I did could’ve prepared me for the challenge that changed my life.

I had always depended on my husband to be my translator/interlocutor when we went to foreign countries. With him around, I felt secure and didn’t have to face my demons if I didn’t want to. But once, we had planned to visit an English speaking country with the kids, but at the last moment, an office emergency made my husband rush back, leaving me to travel with the kids.. alone!

Now, I know I wasn’t really *alone* as I had kids with me, but they were too young to help me out and so, the responsibility of ensuring their needs and safety during the journey, fell squarely on my shoulders. This meant that I had to constantly interact with the big bad world with a tool that I wasn’t very adept at handling – English!

I managed fine in the cabin. The crew were nice and I could relax on the plane as we had already booked the hotel for our stay. Everything was going smoothly, until we came to the immigration department. I know what you’re thinking, everyone hates the immigration department. They smile at you, but you know that they mean business. They immediately took my children aside and asked me to accompany them. When I asked why I was being taken alone, they said that I was supposed to complete the formalities alone and then join my children later. At that point, I think my heart would’ve come right out of my chest, it was beating so hard. In my entire trip, although the lone guardian, I wasn’t really ever alone, but in those 20 minutes at the immigration check, I was completely and utterly alone and what made me even more nervous was that I had to do all this in English.

My knees buckled on each step and my forehead gleamed with sweat as I made it to the immigration officer. The first question they asked was a bouncer – They asked me about some authorisation letter from my husband which allowed me to travel alone with the kids (this was a much needed formality in that country that we didn’t know about). What could I say, I flashed them a nice English smile and hoped they would let it pass. Somehow, it worked! And they moved on to other questions. Then, for the next 10 minutes, questions were hurled at me left, right and center and like a warrior without any fear, hesitation or panic, I confidently answered them with the help of all the acquired knowledge of English that I had gathered over the years. It was as if my entire life after marriage was flashing before my eyes, giving me answers to the questions.

Nevertheless, I didn’t allow any trace of my nervousness to show on my face and nicely ended the interview. We were now officially allowed to enter!

The next fifteen days I roamed the cities of that country with my kids; travelling in metros and cabs all by ourselves with a new-found confidence. It was one of the best trips we’ve ever taken together. Not once in this trip, did I let my limited knowledge of English be a hindrance to our fun, or a source of embarrassment.

After my return many of my friends who are fluent in English, admired the way I traveled so confidently. My husband too joined in the praise and needless to say, I really basked in the glory of my adventure in the immigration department.

The reason I have written this is because I admire the women who come from a background similar to mine and have to suffer from many disadvantages because of that. I want to tell them that what they do is really hard, but that they shouldn’t give up. It is their courage that makes even the impossible, possible. I wish to say to my sisters to not be afraid and to explore this world, boldly and fearlessly!

About the ‘adventurer’:

The storyteller is a confident, smart lady without any fears or inhibitions. She helps her husband in his business activities, takes care of her kids and is the pride of her family.

As narrated to Ranjana Gupta

Rewritten by Aamil Syed

Pic courtesy: Radha Satam

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