How three boys taught their mother English

Ammi the woman behind the camera who did not want her children to be called anpadh
Blog Phenomenal Woman Wednesday, January 27, 2016 - 14:25

By Rahul Paswan

“A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells, the less you know.”

This one tells the story of the beginning of my school life, which started that very day. Like most of the kids in town, I also did my primary schooling at various institutions. Institutions opened by educated individuals, but which lacked the school-like atmosphere. There was the excitement of wearing the new white school dress, the never lasting joy of finally being together with kids of my age, and the nervousness of exploring a world that had till now been beyond my knowledge.

This picture shows the happiness of a mother who has always wanted her children to get the best education which she could never have. My first step to my mother’s dream. A selfless dream. It is a dream that will often water my eyes for no reason. At first, the print was just colours of yellow and white, taken some eight or nine years ago. Back then, this photograph was only a memory of our childhood, saved in our family photo album. And after all these years, when spared a look, it speaks, like a companion who walked along with me all these years. Only if it could speak, I am sure its first sentences would have been—how far have you come, see, I have told you, life goes on. And to which I would have said, “Yes friend! Indeed.”

It was a usual Wednesday morning when this picture was taken. The greater significance of this day is in the newness which the photograph captured. It still gives me the happiness I felt years ago. There is the new white uniform, my younger brothers by my side, and my new friends who were shouting for me to finish early so that we wouldn’t be late on our first day of school. The morning began with a certain kind of satisfaction. This morning was an end to my life as “not a properly schooled kid,” and a beginning for my mother’s dream.

This picture has awkward smiles. Papa was not happy with our teeth-flashing smiles. Even ten years later, I’m not able to accept his description of a beautiful photograph. It was a genuine smile blown by Ammi’s actions from behind the camera. She looks at us, laughs, feels proud, adores us and then warns us against the wrath of papa. Her gestures of how not to pose creeps me out, and Papa says, “Stop making that face,” to which she will only smile. Like always. No doubts Ammi was happy that day.

Rahul Paswan with his brothers

I remember the evenings when Ammi and I used to sit together and eat, after everyone went off to bed. The kitchen used to be our debate place and our discussions ranged from the local politics to our very own household matters.

I would feel proud at her wide-mouthed reactions to the facts I told her from my general knowledge class, and then very neatly she would push another paratha in my plate. After this unacceptable act of hers I would say, “Ammi! Yaar! I cannot eat that much,” and she would reply, “You are 11, you should at least eat 11 parathes.”

“According to that logic you should eat 40 parathes then,” I would say, and both of us would burst into loud laughter.

She has moved from being a household lady to a woman who steps up and takes charge; from a loving, caring mother, to a responsible for everyone and everything lady. It has been amazing to watch Ammi go through this transformation.

“These are my values, my beliefs, and my thoughts not yours. I believe in them because of the certain kind of experiences I have had in my life. In your life you might have different experiences, different beliefs, different opinions, but it’s up to you how you justify them. I might not agree at times with everything you do because it’s not easy to forget what I have learnt, but I am always up for a change,” she said to me once, when she tried to advise me on my first love. All I could do is to learn from her, every single moment.

But there’s nothing that bothered her more than my father’s family calling her anpadh. She never wanted her children to suffer through the pain of being called illiterate. So we were admitted to probably the best English speaking school in town. We would speak English, and she used to sit and listen to the foreign and fascinating accent. Gradually she picked up the short and frequent words like please, thank you, and many such.

It didn’t take long for me to figure out her cravings for knowledge. I decided, I will teach her. Along with my brothers, we made posters of English alphabets and pasted it all over the kitchen. We chose the kitchen because nobody except her and us actually went there, and she spent most of her time in the kitchen. My brothers and I would teach her the letters after she was done cooking dinner. I never saw her more happy. Our little fingers over her fingers, drawing the imperfect curves and straights of the letters. She looked like us. A kid. Those posters in the kitchen made the educated part of the family laugh at her, but she chose not to give up.

I may have stopped teaching her because I got busy with my school, with my life, in my own space. But my brothers took my place. Now, I am not there for her, but she has everyone she wants. Taking a perfect picture takes time but who has time here. We wanted to go to school and show off our new school dress. Not our fault, as my Daadi used to say, “A child is always in hurry.” Ammi is the one who looks happy in the moment. She captured us all in her memory. New bags, new shoes, new dress, new life and a new beginning, for us and for her.

Though she is not there in the picture, somewhere behind the camera she is giggling at us all, making lovely, adorable faces.

(The author is a first year journalism student at St. Joseph’s College, Bengaluru. This story was first published on The Open Dosa, a web journal brought out by the students of the English department, on January 27, under the headline “Behind the Camera”. It has been edited for language.)

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