A couple of weeks ago I saw a series of NHS posters about the increased incidence of oral cancer in people who chew paan. One of them was in Bangla and it instantly brought to mind the image of the Mesabji, or teacher, who presided over the little ‘school’ at the house of my friend, N. I was ten or eleven at the time. The ‘school’ was held on Saturdays and was compulsory for my Bangladeshi friends, which inevitably meant it was something of a chore for them; whereas i attended of my own free will and loved every minute of the experience.
During the first half of the class we learnt how to read the Qur’an – and I do mean read: there was never any expectation that we should be able to comprehend the words we were reciting; it was enough that we could speak them. We started by learning the Arabic alphabet. Actually, what we learnt was the Bangla pronunciation of the letters: ا alif, ب ba, ت ta, ث sa. After that, we worked our way through vowel markers and joined up letter forms until we could read words and, eventually, sentences.
In the second half of the class we turned our attentions to Bangla. My friends had the advantage over me then, as they understood what we were reading. I struggled along with the help of N. I could already read the script however: I think I’d learnt it the year before with N’s assistance; but my grasp of the the language itself was minimal. I seemed to spend the whole time grappling with the first lesson in আমার বই, ‘Āmār Bai’ (‘My Book’). Āmāder desh shundâr desh* is the only bit of it I can still recall.
Nevertheless, I loved it: Arabic and Bangla alike. I even loved the fact that we had to do a funny ritual (uzu) in which we washed our hands, feet etc before we had the class. I didn’t understand why we had to do these things until a couple of years later when my friends’ dad acquired a couple of books in English, but it scarcely mattered: participation in a ritual generates a meaning of its own.
The mesabji himself spoke no English. He communicated with me entirely through smiles and via valiant attempts at interpretation by my friends. I remember how keen he was to try and learn though. He used to sit and pore over Ladybird books, even as we grappled with Arabic and Bangla. I can picture his face now: the childlike expression contrasting with his long grey beard, as he stares at an illustration of a toothbrush and attempts to say the word on the page opposite. “Tootbrash” is how it always comes out, no matter how hard he tries.
He was such a gentle old man, at least with me; and I revelled in my ‘special pupil’ status. As a ‘convert’ I could do no wrong**. At the end of the class my friends’ mum would bring the paan. The bright green leaf and the red stain on the Mesabji’s teeth were the signal that the class was ending; which explains, I suppose, why I’ve never liked the stuff.
* Our land is a beautiful land”, or thereabouts.
** By contrast, N’s brother A could do no right. The poor lad had a stammer. He was punished with a rap on the knuckles each time he fluffed a word, which happened more and more often, as he got more and more nervous.