She came to QC to return the books she had borrowed from the Poetry Library – a small collection of books (poetry anthologies, collection of short stories, novellas) we set aside for our Write to Speak participants to read and enjoy. She had taken Hari Bhakta Katuwal’s “Yo jindagi khai k jindagi”. She told me she enjoyed the book and she was taking two more this time – Bhupi Sherchan’s ” Ghumne Mech Maathi Andho Maanche” and Prajwal Prajuly’s “Gorkhako Chhori” the Nepali version of “The Gurkha’s Daughter”.
She then sat down on the sofa with me and we started talking. I fear I might sound patronizing here but the conversation that followed took me by surprise. She was telling me about problems she had been having at home owing to her father’s alcoholism and how they had been trying to deal with it. But that wasn’t the only part that got me worrying about her.
Rojina is studying in grade 10 now and she is very worried about passing her S.L.C examination. She is afraid that if she fails, her relatives will start pestering her again, that it will be an excuse for them to point out once again that she should quit trying to study and just get married. For S.L.C., her biggest worry is about passing English she told me. I didn’t take her that seriously and told her not to worry and that she was very bright. Then I asked her to read a paper in front of me that was in English. She brought the paper up to her face, almost covering it. After a few seconds, she peeped at me, smiled and looked at the paper again. Then she just smiled at me covering her mouth with her right hand and put the paper down with her left and said, “Malai aaudaina k.” (I can’t.)
I got persistent, thought she was just being too shy, and pointed to a word and asked her to read it. After a considerable amount of time, she read the word “day” as “boy”. I assumed the font was too small so I pulled out another book, which was incidentally a children’s book, and asked her to read a line from that. She’d repeat the same process of craning to read the words, look at me and smile. She read “big” easily. She read “sky” with some help. I asked what the word “sky” meant, she started explaining about something completely different. I told her it meant “aakash” in Nepali. She then said, “Oh yes, yes. I forgot.”
I brought out more children’s book and asked her to read some more. She was trying her best to read but it soon became apparent that she could not read, not even simple early grade English. I was getting worried for her but I tried to hide it.
I really don’t know what I was doing or trying to do but I found myself teaching her the English alphabets in phonetics so she could read simple words. When she went home that day I sent her with one extra book, a children’s book of poems with illustrations and asked her to at least try to read it phonetically and see if she recognized a few common words there that she knew the meanings to. I told her next time she came to QC, we could go over it and try to do more reading and by then I’d try to find some easy English to Nepali dictionary if possible.
I was trying to hold back a question throughout the time, but before she went home, I had to ask her how she had passed her English exams till then. She told me her teachers suggested to guess answers to objective questions. So for true and false questions, she would either put in”True” or “False” for all questions and hope that at least some would be correct. All I could say then was to not to think too much about passing her English exams in S.L.C but trying to learn the language from the basic level and take her time. I almost promised to help her out any way I could, but held back. Did I really have time, effort, expertise enough to help her out with this?
After she went home, I was talking to Niranjan Kunwar, writer and educator specializing in primary level education, who also happened to be at QC that day conducting a workshop for people interested in reading, writing and education. I told him about Rojina. We agreed her reading level was that of the children in kindergarten and she would have to start off with books and tools that we use for primary level kids. We also agreed that it would take a lot of commitment and focus from her side and also from the side of the person who would be helping her. Who would that be?
I know how bright Rojina is, how eager she is to learn, how hardworking she is and just how brave she is. I wish her all good things that this world has to offer. But here’s the tragedy of being limited, the only thing I can offer her right now as her poetry instructor is more poetry and books that she can read, and these talks that sometimes drift to the basics that the lucky ones like us take for granted, like alphabets.
Photo credit: Illustration by Jakub Konvica. Recommend you to check this out http://www.rojaksite.com/illustrated-alphabets/
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