You are expected to learn at least five new English words every day, memorize their meanings, and use them appropriately,” announced my school’s single, svelte, smart, haughty headmistress, Ms. Sharma, at the beginning of every semester. I don’t believe I have shared that in my formative years, I went to a boarding school spread over 250 acres of lush hills in Mussoorie, India.
We boarders, like typical teenagers, snickered at the English-loving protégé of the founding fathers. We soon caved in when words like, “You will pay a fine if caught speaking in Hindi,” started echoing in the hallways.
“What else can we do? We get ten rupees as tuck money and have an insatiable boarder’s appetite,” said the queen of rebellion, my classmate, Rajani. We all resisted but, in the end, pragmatism won. We couldn’t risk depriving ourselves of the only gentleman we saw over the weekends-the tuck man and the array of goodies he brought, like Santa at Christmas.
The students waited expectantly for his coconut macaroons, Mango Frooti, and cream-filled rolls. I, too, went from thinking, speaking, and debating in the Queens English to dreaming in it. I didn’t want to take any chances. What if Ms. Sharma confronted me in my dreams and deprived me of the weekend decadence?
My obsessive-compulsive relationship with the English language might have begun in Mussoorie, but it didn’t end at school. On one occasion, my mother yelled at me because I corrected a relative when they said, “I am having to go to the wedding.” I was rebuked, “This is what you have been taught? To tell elders you are wrong!” Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything, but I was beyond cure by then. Years and years of emphasis on accurate diction, pronunciation, and grammar had turned me into a grammar maniac.
In 2005, when I joined an Ivy League college in the United States for a master’s program in communication, I thought, “How difficult can it be?” Of course, I knew it would be expensive to apply for graduate school. Everyone always says how expensive it is to go to grad school, so I had an idea of what I was getting myself into. One of my friends was actually able to send me a website that explained how to pay for graduate school. Those interested can find that page on https://www.gofundme.com/c/blog/pay-graduate-school if they’re concerned about finances. That was helpful. After learning about the financial stuff, a significant number of Americans I had interacted with used grammar erroneously. That made me feel better about applying for an English course as someone who wasn’t English. A few used “like” a little too often in their sentences. Others said, “Stand on line,” blithely. When a coworker said, “Regardless of what they say, I could have went there,” I was convinced that I would sail smoothly through grad school.
In my first semester, I signed up for a course called Business Writing for the Media. I was the classic Indian student-sat in the first row, hand raised to answer every question, and stayed back late to confirm that I hadn’t missed anything. I was trained to think that earning a 4.0 GPA was the only measure of good performance. Though I was an adult by this time, fear of performance appraisals from my childhood continued to haunt me. “96%? Where you lost remaining marks?”
Day one in class was disastrous. Let’s just say “ungrammatical” was my professor’s choice word for that evening. “You might want to read On Writing Well,” he suggested. I was baffled. It was like telling Cleopatra how to rule Egypt. “The English that you speak and write would be a misfit in the American world of communication. If you want to survive, you have to relinquish the Queen’s English and accept the Americanized version,” he continued in a more compassionate tone.
I could not believe my ears. Saying, “Please find attached my resume for your perusal,” or “I had been waiting for the article to finish,” was incorrect? When I read out one of my PR pitches in class, my classmates gave me a confused look. One sentence read, “The yoga guru looks sober.” In Queen’s English, sober means somber; in the United States it refers to a non-drunk person. The professor said, “It’s not just the extra “o’s” and “u’s” you need to eliminate from your vocabulary (neighbor vs. neighbour); you need to get rid of passive voice, convoluted sentences, and flowery language.”
But I was taught that passive voice was the cultured and sophisticated style of expressing oneself. Wasn’t flowery language synonymous with a good command over words? “If you can’t finish reading a sentence in one breath, then you know it’s too long,” the professor reiterated.
It was clear I had to unlearn whatever I had learnt my entire life. I came home and howled like a baby. In my Indian high school, I was the popular editor–in chief of my school’s publication. Words were what I knew best. The talent & skill set that I had been proud of my entire life was now redundant. I made a note to self, “Tonight I went from reigning grammar queen to a lonely tuba player.”
Over a period of time and after several splashes of red ink across my assignments, I warmed up to American English. The ride from the colloquial, Indianized version of the Queen’s English to the Yankee version was an interesting, bumpy experience. When my friend showed me a copy of the recommendation written by his former boss at one of the global firms in India, I instantly understood why the top schools in the United States hadn’t accepted him. One recommendation went, “I am having to say that Ravi is having lot of good qualities.”
I wonder if language is a matter of perspective. Who decides whether it should be tomatoes or to-mah-toes? I wonder what response my Queens, New York, English would evoke if I were to return to Mussoorie today, where Queen’s English continues to reign.
Personal essay “Unlearning the Queen’s English” excerpted with permission from the book “Mouth Full” published by JK Publishing. Copyright (c) 2012 Sweta Srivastava Vikram. All Rights Reserved. This piece also appeared in India Currents & Halabol in its edited form.
Author Bio: Sweta Srivastava Vikram (www.swetavikram.com) is an award-winning poet, writer, novelist, author, essayist, columnist, and educator. Born in India, Sweta spent her formative years between India, North Africa, and the United States. She is the author of five chapbooks of poetry, two collaborative collections of poetry, a novel, and a nonfiction book. She also has two upcoming book-length collections of poetry in 2014. Her work has also appeared in several anthologies, literary journals, and online publications across seven countries in three continents. Sweta has won three Pushcart Prize nominations, Queens Council on the Arts Grant, an International Poetry Award, Best of the Net Nomination, Nomination for Asian American Members’ Choice Awards 2011, and writing fellowships. A graduate of Columbia University, she lives in New York City with her husband and teaches creative writing across the globe & gives talks on gender studies. You can follow her on Twitter (@ssvik) or Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/