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Learning English

I go to the beginners’ room at conversation class today. There are so many people there that I have to pick my way across—stepping on a monk’s knee on the way—to a group of four. They welcome me eagerly. “How old are you, teacher?” asks one. I say twenty-two. He shakes his head. “You look very young. Only eighteen.” I tell him that someone once told me I looked twelve, and they laugh. “No, not twelve, teacher,” he says seriously. “But sixteen.” He’s cut my age, neatly, by two years. I try, vainly, to argue it back up to eighteen but it is done. Sixteen it stays.

I talk to them about ‘learning’. In the advanced group, I would have asked what it means to learn, to acquire knowledge, to remember and to forget. Here, however, I change the question to something they can identify with. What is it like learning English? Or better—why do you learn English?

The boy at the end, no more than twenty himself, with his square glasses, tanned skin and red robes (a monk, already?), speaks about Tibet and China. He must learn English to have a voice, to share with the world what is happening to his people, his culture. “China, it controls what you see, what you hear. How then can I share what I have to say with the world, when I cannot speak English?”

The easiness of his answer, its spontaneity, touches me. It is obviously not a question he has to think long about. The monk next to him, older, more moon-faced—eyes that light up when he laughs—has lived in India for the past ten years, most of them spent in a monastery in south India. There, he has followed in the footsteps of the Dalai Lama and learnt science. (As Pico Iyer quotes in the book I am reading, the Dalai Lama doesn’t see himself an optimist, but a realist.) Physics. Chemistry. The theory of relativity. “Buddhism and science have… a… relativity—”

“Relationship,” I correct.

“—but in the south, I learnt all from Europeans. I need translator to learn. So I think, I’ll go to McLeod Ganj and learn English to better learn science.” The reason is unique and blends more boundaries my mind (a man of the robe, seeking to better understand the science of the world). But what boundaries do hold up in McLeod Ganj?

The man next to him—not a monk—wants to learn English so he can go to Moscow. His face is graver than the rest; he is the man who asked me my age at the start. He chooses his sentences with care, with a greater weight than the rest. He’s been to Moscow already once to visit his cousin. (How global is the Tibetan network?) There, he experienced what it was like to be alien. To not understand anything. There is a phrase he is looking

for, but cannot quite translate into English. He asks around—Tibetan flies back and forth—and the group looks as confused. “Look down upon,” he offers finally. You sense this is not the exact phrase he would use, but the sentiment is there, embedded. “The Russians look down upon me.”

The monk next to me has found English because his body has forced him to. Exiled from his home, travelling to India, he fell seriously ill. At hospital, he needed a translator. Sometimes there was one, sometimes there wasn’t. Finally, the doctor told him he needs kidney surgery. It was then, lying in hospital, that he decided he needed to learn English. It is communication at its more intrinsic level: the need to survive.

“What about you, teacher? When you learn English?”

I tell them English is not the problem—it is Hindi. I make them laugh at stories of me being treated as a foreigner in my own land, at taxi drivers who hear me call myself a man (Hindi gender is hard!) and shake their heads wisely. They say, “You are not Indian. I know you are not Indian.” And refuse to bring the price down from the notorious ‘foreigner’ level.

“No problem, teacher,” says one of my students kindly, going on to express a thought that has become a new addition to Tibetan culture, a belief intrinsic to the way they live their lives, to their lives as they can be now lived. “With English, anywhere is your homeland.”

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