Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Not A Word of English

A few years ago, I became good friends with a pretty typical North American Sikh family.  You know them.  A husband and wife, a couple of kids and the husband's widowed mother brought over from Punjab.  A nice family, nothing unusual.

A nice Sikh family,
although NOT the one in this story


I was friendly with the wife, a woman of my generation who had run a small in-home daycare for quite a few years.  Her husband was a hard-working businessman, sort of successful, but not getting rich.  The kids, a girl and her younger brother, were in high school and middle school respectively.  They did well in school, even though the young son was almost totally deaf.

Now we get to Dadi ji, the one this post is really about.

Like the rest of the family, there was nothing unusual about her.  She was amritdhari and quite vocal in her opposition to her son's monaness, which she blamed on the wife, who had cropped hair and shaved legs.  Strangely enough the two kids kept kesh of their own accord.  She really was quite a pain in the behind.  She was constantly complaining about something, most often about her bad back.  I don't think she meant to be malicious, but she had a negative effect on the whole household.

She was a typical old lady from a tiny village that no one had ever heard of, unsophisticated, unschooled, ignorant and somewhat uncouth..   A pendu that the whole family was just a bit ashamed of, not too bright.  She spent her days helping the mother with her daycare.  While with the young kids, she was a very different person, laughing, playing, happily jabbering with them.  Every day she relaxed with a magazine while they watched Sesame Street.  The magazine, of course, was one with lots of pictures because she was completely illiterate.  Of course, although she had been in the USA for many years, she spoke not one word of English.

One day, I noticed something rather strange.  Her eyes as she looked at the magazine, supposedly studying a picture of something, were moving back and forth in a very regular manner.  She appeared to be reading except, of course, she couldn't read and even if she could, the magazine was in English, a language she didn't understand at all.

Several times more I noticed this phenomena.  I said nothing and waited for one of those rare moments when she and I were alone in the house.  I approached her and said without warning in English, "Dadi ji, you understand English perfectly well and you can read it, too."

Startled, she looked up with a sly smile.  "Haanji (Yes.)"  She went on in Punjabi.  "Please don't tell them, though.  I learn so much when think think I'm just a stupid, silly, old woman that has no idea what they're saying."  It was true.  Whenever they wanted to talk about something that they didn't want her to hear, they would speak English.  It never occurred to them that she might be able to understand.    I suggested that since she knew English, she should speak to me in that language.  She couldn't though very well because, although she could understand, she had no idea how to actually make the correct sounds and anyway, she didn't want to risk being heard.  Likewise, although she could read English perfectly well, she couldn't write it because she had never had the opportunity to learn writing.

So how was this miracle accomplished?  Sesame Street, of course.

Muppets of Sesame Street

She had been watching it with the kids for years and had learned the alphabet and the numbers and simple words and concepts from that. As time went on, she learned more from other television programs, both for children and for adults.  She said her favorite English channel was PBS which aired Sesame Street, but she liked Spike quite a lot, too.  Go figure.  She really liked watching with her grandson best because he always had to have the closed-captioning (subtitles) turned on.

One thing really bothered her.  Although her literacy skills in English were good, she was still illiterate in Punjabi.  There was really no surreptitious way she could learn that.

I had an idea.

All the kids were from Sikh families and perhaps the parents would like them to learn their Gurmukhi letters.    Maybe the daughter, who really enjoyed sewa, would be willing to teach them as she had been taught.  The parents were quite enthusiastic.  It took some time to put together, but finally, when they were ready to begin, I had a suggestion, "Since you're going to be teaching it, maybe Dadi ji would like to learn, too."

The idea was immediately nixed by them all, when the old lady piped up, "Haanji.  I want to learn."  The strength and determination in her voice startled them all.  "I have always wanted to learn to read Guru ji Maharaj and also the Punjabi newspaper."  They all looked at her in disbelief.

Her son, a bit shame-faced, said, "You could have learned along with our kids years ago.  Why didn't you say anything?"

"You never asked me."

So she learned to read and write Gurmukhi and I am happy to report that her disposition brightened as the family's respect for her increased.  She had, however, extracted a promise from me that I would never tell them about her English.  I have kept my promise even today, which is why there are no names in this story.



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Words.  I am told that some people are mystified by some of my words, so I will explain.

A keshdhari Sikh is a Sikh who keeps all hairs on the body intact without shaving or cutting any of them.  The unshorn hair, especially that on the head is called kes(h).

A mona Sikh is one who does not keep kesh.  Occasionally, the term moni is used for such a woman, but this is rare.

An Amritdhari Sikh is one who has been initiated into the Khalsa Brotherhood by partaking of Amrit, a sacred beverage.  Sometimes called a baptised Sikh.


Gurmukhi is the alphabet that Punjabi and Sikh religious writings are written in.

Sewa is selfless service.

Dadi means paternal grandmother.  Ji at the end is an honourific indicating respect.

I sincerely hope I am never called on to write a dictionary.
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About the family picture:  This is NOT the family in this story.  I got it off the "Net and think they look like really nice people and there is not a mona among them. The Dadi ji was added from another picture.  Oh, the wonders of Photoshop.


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