AIYOo, Telugu By-Heart ?

Is there such a thing as being ‘literate’ in a language without being ‘fluent’ in it? Does rote memorisation without actual understanding count for anything? Nidhi Dugar Kundalia muses about her missed opportunity to become well-versed in another language.

I still remember that dull tube lit classroom in the darkest corner of my school building. The jasmine garland around the low hair bun of our teacher wafted a sleepy aroma which didn’t help our lunch filled tummies much. And slow formation of letters on the blackboard అది, ఇది… making sentences that floated like dark clouds above my head. I would copy them in my notebook and make a quick note on their English pronunciations. The pronunciation of అది was ‘adi’ and its meaning was ‘that’. The pronunciation of ఇది was ‘idi’ and its meaning was ‘this’. And this helped me wade through my Telugu papers in the middle school years– connect a pronunciation to every word you write so even if you neglect the real pronunciation, you will attach a self-calibrated English-like pronunciation to it, memorise it with that and write all the exams without essentially understanding the language!

Chuku Chuku Railu Vastundhi
Pakkaku Pakkaku Jaragandi
Aaginaaka Ekkandi
Jo Jo Paapa Edavaku
Ladoo Mitai Tinipista
Kammani paalu Taagipista

I never knew with much certainty what this above poem meant, apart from the fact that it was on chukchuk trains. And for a while, I considered myself quite a prodigy for rote learning enough of these poems, stories, analogies, essays and synonyms in Telugu to get 90% marks throughout; until I attended a school reunion during my university years, where I heard a lot of my other classmates did the same. పిల్లిante pilli (cat), జింకante jhinka (deer), కుక్కante kukka (dog)…Children have the edge, no doubt, because they lack an adult’s competing mental clutter. All that many of us knew for these third languages, which were never our mother tongue, was from rote learning and fear of unexceptional, standardised tests and marks. To learn something “by rote,” according to the Webster’s dictionary, is to learn it “from memory, without thought of the meaning; in a mechanical way.” (Oh, and because “rote” learning and “memorisation” have negative connotations for most people, it might be better to speak of learning things ‘by heart’ –as we say in India). No vital connection between learning and life was forged in these Telugu classes, and much less any affection for voluntarily using one’s mind in the arduous, sustained and frequently counterintuitive way that leads to questions and good answers.

In a drive for Telugu nationalism (referring to a nationalist stance applied to the people of Andhra Pradesh which was created after the linguistic reorganisation of provinces in independent India) Telugu language promotion in schools has almost became a war cry for the political parties. As a result, Telugu is now enforced in schools within the category of indigenous languages as either a second language or third language and demographics indicate which additional languages should be taught.The rule applies to both English and Telugu medium schools, private and government-run. So, while Hindi, my mother tongue, became a second language, Telugu, to my horror, became a third language. More than 60% population of Hyderabad spoke Telugu but were equally fluent in Hindi and English. And as for me, after studying it for four years of Telugu in school, I could read Telugu, I could write Telugu… but could never understand or speak it.

In a drive for Telugu nationalism (referring to a nationalist stance applied to the people of Andhra Pradesh which was created after the linguistic reorganisation of provinces in independent India) Telugu language promotion in schools has almost became a war cry for the political parties.

Hearing and speaking are related. They buttress each other. Without practice, you probably would be able to follow just a little of the spoken language before getting lost. We speak without the space between the words and without commas and full stops. You can see all this plus almost never lose the perspective when you read. But trying to form a coherent sentence, let alone carrying on a chat, without practice in how to form your lips and tongue is unnerving and then you go back to forming one word at a time and achieve ‘Me Tarzan, you Jane’ at the best.

So there we were, the third langaugers, writing Telugu exams and competing for grades. Some learnt the language from the locals while growing up, which made things easier for them. The rest just ‘by hearted’ them. And here’s a little- known secret: learning things by heart isn’t as hard as many people imagine. The trick to remembering the digits is constant repetition — especially when you’re early in the process. I can never forget Chuk Chuk Railu rhyme because I learnt it really well a decade ago. It’s not the only factor, of course –natural ability matters hugely, too – but it does seem to be a necessary ingredient. As Amy Chua, of The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother fame, says in her new book: “Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is so underrated…”

There were Tarzans from other language classes too. My Muslim classmates studied Arabic as a fourth language in school (yes fourth! And conveniently called the ‘Moral Studies’) on insistence of their parents so that they could read Quran as true good Muslims do. “But what is the point of reading the Holy Quran without understanding it”, I asked them at the reunion (sense unfortunately, always came to me a bit late in life). “Because it sounds ephemeral”, said a friend. “I don’t have the time to learn Arabic. Wish I had given it more time and attention earlier. But being able to speak it is as comforting as a mother’s breast. You see, we must utter the specific sounds dictated in the first chapter of the Quran “Sura 1” or ‘The Key’ or ‘Al-Fatiha’. The Arabic sounds of ‘The Key’ represent a numerical combination that opens a box of treasured sounds”.

‘Al-Hamdu’, ‘Na’budu’,’ Mustaqim’. “The Sura 1 is mathematically coded: when you recite it in Arabic, your lips touch each other precisely 19 times when the letters “B” and “M” occur, creating incandescent vibrations…”, my classmate Madiha said , who then went on to attain a Qatar scholarship…

A day after the reunion, I went back to my college in Hyderabad and started picking out Telugu books, and had no one to go to for reading recommendations. Maybe Telugu would charm my more evolved, adult mind now. Maybe I should try to let ‘eppudu’ and ‘ippudu’ tug at the heart or pique the mind and/or simply hear their euphoniousness. Through the library, I had access to some of the Telugu-language books that had not made it to the regional language section in bookstores, Selected Stories’ of Tripuraneni Gopichand by G.R.K.Murty, Pebili Hymavathi Kathalu by Pebili Hymavathi, Ankitham Katha Sankalanam by Dr. Ayyagari Sitaratnam The collections were hardly systematic. One of the better-collected authors, I was told, was Kandukuri Veereshalingam. But I’d only read a few pages of his book Satyavati Charitam when the graduation day arrived and I had to return the book, unfinished. The summer after my graduation I tried in vain to find a copy of the book, and, in the end, spent more time shopping for my move to England and watching reruns of Yes, Minister, the latter insisted upon by my sister so that I could understand English satire.

For the first few years in the U.K., I tried several times to read Satyavati Charitam, but something was always coming up: a friend’s visit during her summer break, a trip to Portugal, and various other unforeseen events. The last time I was trying to finish the book, I got married. Since then, I have become resigned to the idea that, perhaps like someone we greatly regard yet never have opportunities to befriend, Satyavati Charitam may forever be a great novel I have not finished reading.

has a passion for odd and intriguing, and that is what brought her into the field of journalism. Adventure sports, street-style theater and travelling are her much revered leisure pursuits. While at it, she digs random coffee shop talks and scribbles them down into droll stories.

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