When I was about 9 years old and in 3rd class, I remember hating English, particularly the long words that were hard to pronounce and spell. The teacher was no help either. She was very, very strict. Since then in my mind the name Safia has become associated to a stern face, short stature, piercing shouts, and a lot of pain in my back. When she was caught and later expelled for reading Urdu story digest in classroom, everybody was ecstatic.
So, back to difficult English words. I distinctly remember struggling with the word Building. To my tiny little mind that was the hardest word that there could ever be, and was sure that nobody would have ever heard it in the whole district. It was so difficult to spell. I before U, or after? But why do we need U at all? There's a second I but where?
It was tricky and mysterious.
During one of those hot days came a huge storm. A lot of trees fell. Some houses were also damaged. It was the biggest storm I had ever seen. A huge old tree fell on the railway track and lay there for few days and no trains passed. Electricity was out for more than a week. One of the few trees that stood the calamity was our neem
. Just a couple small branches fell off. I was very proud of it.
On a hot afternoon, when me and my grandmother lay under the neem
, waiting for electricity to be back, grandmother started assessing the damages the storm would have done. "I am wondering how many houses would have collapsed, how many people left homeless or dead, how many electricity poles uprooted. God doesn't care" she said in Punjabi, the only language she knew. "I am thinking" she continued, "if these small houses were destroyed, what would have happened to such tall buildings
in the city." All of it was said in Punjabi, except when she said "buildings." I was so shocked that my grandmother who had never been to a school knew the hardest word I could have imagined. I thought maybe she was well educated but living secretly.
Later when I told my father that grandmother knew the hardest English word, he laughed. And it formed a long running inside family joke that still, whenever told, makes everybody laugh.