04 July 2014

Of lessons learnt on dreaded Saturdays and unlearning the mis-learnt*

My last conversation with her took place almost ten years ago. It was at my sister’s wedding. I was struggling to introduce her to my then girl friend. "This is Aunty Lakshmi," I said and then got stuck trying to explain who she was. "She taught me eloc...no, speech and drama actually...she taught me..."  Aunty Lakshmi came to my rescue. She quite definitively interjected, "I taught him his Ei, Bee, Cee!" Immaculately "elocuted", as always. And I remembered.

I remembered those endless Saturdays when my mother took me to Aunty Lakshmi’s place off Pedris Road and later down Dickman’s Road with Aiya and later Nangi. I remember the first day, the last day and the eleven years in between, the recitation of poetry, voice projection, effective reading, mime exercises, acting excerpts from various plays, learning about dramatists, poets, novelists, about the differences between rhythm and meter, the Shakespearean sonnet, getting the endings right and so much more.

My mother had known Lakshmi Jeganathan from her school days at Holy Family Convent, Kurunegala. She was a tall, no-nonsense lady. She never tolerated slack and knew how to make you cringe, and it didn’t seem to matter to her if the "victim" was four years old or eighteen. I can’t remember any teacher whose wrath was sinister enough to force me to do homework. "Satisfactory" did not satisfy her. Aunty Lakshmi wanted excellence and she extracted it from most of her students, most of the time. Actually, the accompanying parents were de facto students, for the "homework" she wrote down on a little book that every student had to bring with him or her contained much work for the parents as well.

She taught at Royal College for a while and it did not take too long for the students to dub her "Jeggie Kochchi Miris". I do know that most of the teachers were mortally scared of her because she would not tolerate mispronouncing from them either.

I think parents suffered as much as their little boys and girls did, but at least they knew what it was all about. At the age of four, I didn’t know that pronunciation counted for anything. At the age of ten or twelve I didn’t know that knowing the differences between rhythm and meter could be what differentiates a would be poet from an unbounded exponent of the word. At age 15 I didn’t get the point in knowing who S.T. Coleridge was. My mother taught English Literature, so she must have known. Other mothers, as members of a society where status made all the difference and where English was a defining line and a cutting edge, must have known too. I didn’t.

I do recall that I was quite enamoured with the illustrations with which Aunty Lakshmi decorated the poems she typed out for our mothers to paste on our books, at least in the first few years. "Rain, rain go away" I thought was actually about the rain, and I don’t think anyone can blame me because she was an artist who somehow knew how a picture can capture a child’s heart. That’s how she got us to pronounce the diphthong "ai" properly. There were of course other poems equally "educative" in this way. the mists and coldest frosts" somehow unlocked our culturally and probably genetically conditioned predilection to drop the "s" endings. 

No fault of the Sinhala language of course, which unarguably is many times richer than English for many, many reasons. Anyway, those poems all came from one source, the Wendy Whatmore Academy, to which through Aunty Lakshmi I suppose we were all affiliated. All the certificates carried that name.
Aunty Lakshmi’s son Pradeep was in Aiya’s class. A brilliant student and an extremely gentle human being, Pradeep is at the relatively young age of 38, is on his way to being a retired Anthropologist. He will teach social theory much better as a photographer, novelist or in any creative field he chooses, so versatile a man is he. Pradeep is pertinent because he was Aiya’s class mate. We were invited for Pradeep’s birthday parties. 

I still remember digging in Aunty Lakshmi’s flower gardens for hidden coins. The richest haul was actually under the doormat. I remember watching the bigger children fighting each other to collect as much loot as possible. I was happy with my collection of one cent coins and in any case I was too small to compete.

Aunty Lakshmi was a different person altogether out of class. When the occasion demanded it, she was the kindest person around. Countless must be the number of students who have been treated with soft drinks and something to eat and showered with gentle, comforting words, if ever parents got late to pick them up. Her tough exterior has to have hidden a gentle heart, for blue was her favourite colour. The walls of her house were painted in various shades of blue. The cushions were blue, so were the curtains. She even had two miniature lamps that were blue. Blue was the metaphor that spoke out from every corner in that household.

I was in Grade 10 when I "dropped out" of her class. I wasn’t quite ready to tell my mother that I just couldn’t go anymore. If I remember correctly, I missed a couple of classes deliberately because I was unprepared. I hadn’t done the homework. Fear of being lectured when I see her next did the rest. I left home on Saturday morning, but didn’t go to Dickman’s Road. I can’t remember where I went, but I got home at the usual time. I believe Aunty Lakshmi gave up on me around the same time, otherwise she would have called my mother and inquired after me. My absence, I am convinced, was more than compensated for by Aiya and Nangi, who were much better students than I could ever be. Aiya, of course, was one of her favourites. Aunty Lakshmi never once asked me what happened.

I still don’t know how the Wendy Whatmore Academy came into being apart from the fact that Wendy had a lot to do with it. What I mean is, the origins of the Prof. Higgins type philosophy of getting us to speak correct English irrelevant to me as a child are no less obscure now. It doesn’t matter. The ideological issues associated with what some people rather cynically call "elocuting" are clear to me now.

For almost twenty years at least, I regarded the entire elocution business a colonial remnant and a weapon of neo-colonialism. I resented the elitism it engendered and which was indeed its source. If English made a difference, speaking BBC English exacerbated this difference. I realise now that this has less to do with the elocution project but a subjugated mindset, and that both have to be dealt with if we are to be truly free as a nation and as a people. Over twenty years since my last "class encounter" with Aunty Lakshmi, I know that freedom comes not only from rediscovery of self but that it also requires us to seize the weapons of the oppressor. The reason is simple, at least in the case of English: anyone with an inferiority complex is doomed to slavery.

My mother was right. The importance of knowing about the Romantic poets, about Shaw, Shakespeare and Jean Anouilh, was less about breaking into the "inner circle" of the elite, than about being able to understand the fact that their merits are relative, that they did not, do not and will not make the world or define humanity for us. My mother was right not because she took us to Aunty Lakshmi but because she also took great care to ensure that we grew up appreciating our history, our heritage and our way of life. I can only hope that all the parents of all the children who have walked in and out of that house on Dickman’s Road, do the same. It would make a huge difference in the man or woman their child will grow in to. And in some small or significant way, it may make a difference for the nation we will someday grow into as a collective.


I have never discussed these things with Aunty Lakshmi. Back then, I was too scared. Today, it is not important. She had her own style. She showed results. I never grew up fearing English or the English-speaking. Aunty Lakshmi had a lot to do with this, I record with all sincerity and with love that I still do not know how to express.

*This was written more than 10 years ago.  May 25, 2003 to be exact. I was published in the 'Sunday Island'.  My mother is no more.  Aunty Lakshmi continues to teach. I've had many conversations with her since I wrote this because my two daughters attend her class now.  
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