Till my first standard (or till I was 6) I studied under the W.B board in a bangla medium school in Calcutta. I was being tought long division and geometery at the age of 6. As a direct result of that and the long hours I had to spend in school, I hated school. I was learning english too. We were being introduced to meanings of all words english. The book, i still remember very well, was this bangla-english dictionary. And it was my favourite book. I would study english all the time. I was great at spellings. At the last exam i had in that school (we had 2 hour exams with 100 mark question papers, yes! At age 6!) i scored 99/100 in English (don't ask me my maths scores, i dunno i donkare)
The next thing i knew, i was uprooted from W.B and placed in LilavatiBai Podar High School, Santa Cruz, Bombay. I.C.S.E saved me. For the entrance interview, I remember, I sat with my father while Mrs Marker, the then principal, asked me questions in english. I only half understoon what she was asking. When she asked me, “What is your favourite subject?” I replied, “ Maths, english, history, geography, bangla...” Because I knew the meaning of the word subject but not the word favourite. She was so kind. She asked my father to set me some sums to solve, so she could check the standard I was used to. My father did. Thankfully, he left out the long division. I did the addition, subtraction, multiplication, division easliy enough. After another 10 minutes discussion between Mrs Marker and my father, I learnt that this was to be my new school.
When school started in June, I saw that my class (the 2nd std) hadn't reached division yet.
I remember not being able to understand a word of what was being said in class the first day. Hence, I dont really remember the first day at all. On day 2, i sat next to this girl, whom i heard humming a bangla song. I eagerly asked her, “Tumii Bangaali?” She nodded and she became my best friend and interpreter. Nivedita translated everything for me.
I remember, the whole class, after finishing what the teacher had set for us, would turn to the teacher and ask her if she liked what they had done. My fiercely independent 7 year-old self would baulk at this. Why did she have to like what we had done. It took me 5 days to realise what the class was asking her was, “Is it like this?”
The first year i received some after school coaching in english. And slowly i was at par with the rest of the class. Much later, when my family moved to Hyderabad, and I joined Gitanjali mid-term and yet scored much better in english than most of the class, I think came a full circle in some way.
Slowly, however, my written bangla became rusty. (My handwriting even now looks like a 6-year old's). I still read bangla and I still thought in bangla. In the mental arithmetic classes, i would do so badly, cos i knew my tables in bangla and it would take me some time to go, “7 8s are? (Shaat aashte chhaappanno) 56” [in fact some things you can never relearn, and I still multiply in bangla]. But whereas the rest of the class was still at 10 times table, i had learnt till almost 20 in Calcutta.
My parents were such bookworms, especially my mother and so i had learnt to read bangla at a very early age. My grandparents would parcel loads of bangla books for me to read after we moved to Bombay. When I would be done with them, i would start with terribly inappropriate (for 7 year olds) adult books by Shooneel Gangopadhyay and the rest. I would hide and read them in the loo (hmmmm so that's where that habit came from!) and get caught all the time. Thankfully, my parents wouldnt make a big deal of it and my mother and her mother were so appreciative of my thirst for knowledge that they would try to answer whatever questions I had. (I now return the favour and explain the more new-fangled things that they dont understand). I never asked them, “Where do babies come from?” cos I was precocious enough to know that that was a secret and i'd made it my mission to find out on my own. The 'India Today' and the dictionary helped.
Now, I think in english. And no I am not sad about losing bangla as my natural first language. I was so young when i left W.B that i never picked up any bad language. And everybody knows, your first language is the one in which you can curse the best.