The other day when I was in the midst of seminar, at the peak of the motivation I was giving to those assembled there, someone asked me: Who has inspired you most? Without a moment’s hesitation I replied: “my mother.” She had worked hard to see that her 7 children did not die of starvation or diseases. Without her hard work I would have been dead and gone long back.
We were so poor that I had to work when I was five. I had to complete weaving one bamboo mat before I could be free in the evening. There was no square meal any day (except on festivals) and we were hungry, emaciated and half naked. My mother would work from dawn to dusk weaving bamboos at the same time looking after all the 7 of us, feeding us whatever little she could afford and getting us rustic medical aids whenever we were sick or in trouble. There were times when I longed for 1 cent to buy a sweet. How hard I had wished for 5 cents (when I was in the fifth grade) to watch a circus show arranged in the school! There were times I would wait for an ordinary Marigold flower at the gate of my class mate’s house. (As I was very poor I never felt like entering the house and he never invited me in)
Every day I worked and worked and went to school hungry. I passed matriculation without knowing one English sentence correctly. Envying those who knew the language well, I vowed that I would master the language. As my family could not afford to send me to college, I sought the help of my parish priest who admitted me into the petit seminary for ecclesiastical studies. It was a god-given opportunity for me as we aspirants had to converse either in English or Latin. I started devouring English words and phrases like a lover. I used to read anything I could lay hands upon, noting down every beautiful word and phrase.
I would write down ten difficult words every day in a piece of paper to study and to commit them to memory on the way to the urinal or on the way back from the dining hall. I would sit glued to the old radio in the study hall to hear news from BBC. As I wanted to develop the correct accent, it was important to listen to English spoken best. This practice continued for years. Even while I convalesced in the infirmary, I used to devote my entire time (there was a lot of it as I did not have to go for mass, classes and prayers) to improve the language.
I started writing one page a day (at the advice of my seminary rector who found a streak of writing talent in me) starting with simple topics like ‘my mother’, ‘my father’, ‘my school’, ‘my village’ and so on. In about three to four years what I had written in loose paper was enough to fill 5 volumes or more. I appropriated difficult words and phrases by using them in sentences of my own and even in the conversations I had with the fellow aspirants. I was rather obsessed with the study of the language and in a few years I was quite good at it. Words would cascade down in an incessant flow and I had developed a style of my own (These days, as I do not pursue ‘everyday a page’ writing habit, I feel I have lost a lot of the sheen of writing I had so painstakingly developed). But even today I am very comfortable with English and I can continue speaking to an audience for a full day or two uninterruptedly and in good command as I do in my seminars in India and abroad. .