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Way back in the seventies, I was put in boarding school by my parents. I was in the crucial in tenth grade and the schools where father was posted at the time weren’t good enough.

I took to life away from home as duck to water. It wasn’t anything like Mallory Towers or St. Clare’s from the wonderful world of Enid Blyton, but one could, with a couple of sacks full of imagination believe it very well was. Anyway, who missed home? Not me. The novelty of life in a dingy old building, brightly lit nevertheless, with other students for company, was excitement enough.

One of the major drawbacks was, unlike in the schools in the Enid Blyton books, the nuns thought very poorly of playtime. Study, study and study some more was the motto. But of course, we got around it by doing our own thing in the study room when the nun-in-charge wasn’t looking, harmless (and useless) things like making songbooks with carefully copied lyrics of favorite songs, in beautiful handwriting too, while pretending we were making notes, even writing stories and passing the pages on to friends who would be eagerly waiting to read the next installment. Well, obviously not all of us. Some of us were too good to be true and took studying rather seriously.

There’s an interesting story that the nuns there told us every so often. You see were asked to speak to each other only in English to gain fluency in the language. But since it wasn’t the language that came to us naturally we lapsed into our mother tongue Malayalam frequently and in turn were roundly chastised by the nuns. How would we learn if we didn’t try? Don’t worry about mistakes, use the language! What would follow next would be the story of the little girl from kindergarten who unlike us had the desire to better herself and so was willing to venture bravely where we dared not.

When the little girl joined the school at three years of age, the story goes, she hardly knew any English. In spite, the desire to speak fluently in the language was so intense that she tried her best always to communicate only in English, even if it be ‘broken’ English.

One day one of the nuns asked her, ‘What is your father?’ The girl was in a quandary on hearing the question. Of course, she got what it meant. The nun wanted to know what her dad did for a living. The answer was that he was a vakeel in the court. But that was a Malayalam word. The English equivalent, advocate, escaped her. Did that stop her from trying? Of course not. This is the point in the story where we of the not-trying-enough lot got reproachful looks. The little girl thought for only a moment before very confidently replying, “My father is Coat-Putting.”

© Shail Mohan 2019