How I Came to Dream in English

Originally published as part of Final Draft, the YIF’s Critical Writing Journal, June 2020. Lightly edited here.

The capacity to dream in a language is said to be the mark of one’s affinity for it. For a long time, I longed to dream in English. Why English, you ask? Where I come from, it’s much more than a language. We revere it, we show off with it and use it to feign sophistication of thought. In the Indian society, knowing and, by extension, speaking the language can have far-reaching implications for one’s socioeconomic standing and self-esteem.

I’m a native Hindi speaker whose tryst with English has been bittersweet—sweet with the pen, bitter on the tongue. Every major turn that my life has taken, the desire and the struggle to tame English has been a determinant, pulling my strings from the shadows.


It started the day my batch graduated upper kindergarten (UKG). The customary farewell ceremony for the outgoing students (my batch) involved each of them pairing up with a younger kid from the incoming UKG batch. The pairs would then line up, and members of each pair would share a plateful of biscuits between them. Back then, I wasn’t aware of the significance of the ceremony, but there were biscuits to be eaten, so I very much looked forward to it.

We had lined up to be matched with our juniors when a teacher plucked me out and put me with the younger kids. Strangely, my parents had also dressed me up in school uniform, when only the younger kids were supposed to be wearing uniforms. My classmates, grown up and raring to become responsible ‘adult’ students of class one, all donned fancy colourful outfits.

Why was I with the juniors? It didn’t make sense. After much prodding from classmates, I mustered the courage to scurry back to my line. But I was soon found out and sent back again. That day, I ended up eating biscuits with one of my own classmates.

Years later, I’d learn that my parents had, back then, decided to have me study UKG again. Supposedly, another year in upper kindergarten would help consolidate my “foundational” English. It explained why I had ended up eating farewell biscuits with my classmate. I had become his junior, and spent the next year of my life in redundancy, doing UKG again, imposed on me in my best interest.

I doubt any part of my current English proficiency can be traced back to an extra year of kindergarten.


A few years later my folks decided that I should be reading the newspaper every day. Another measure deployed to make me learn english, but this one would change me and my thought process forever, for the better for the most part. By class five, I had discovered the colourful world that lay hidden in those black-and-white pages. The benefits were immediate: I adopted the paper’s style of narration— initially by imitation—and quickly developed a fairly accurate ‘grammar sense’—relying on the feel of a sentence, rather than rules, to gauge grammatical consistency. After years of experience (and still without a clue as to the actual rules of grammar), I can say that gaining such an implicit understanding of a language is critical to approaching native fluency. If it’s achieved, sentence construction becomes second nature, freeing up the conscious mind and leaving more room for creativity.

The newspaper had given me an alternative to classroom learning and, as it would dawn on me, a far superior one at that. English instruction in most north Indian Kendriya Vidyalayas (KVs)leaves much to be desired. Lessons, or rather, translations of lessons are delivered in Hindi. Everyone speaks Hindi. Answers to questions get dictated, and all emphasis is on writing them down.

Once, a fill-in-the-blanks statement became the topic of heated discussion in class. The heart of the matter was whether a triumph (a new word) is scored against or over someone. The majority of my classmates went for against, their premise being that a victory is scored against an opponent, so, by extension, a triumph should be too. I found myself part of the much smaller bunch of kids who begged to differ. “Triumph over” was a phrase so recurrent in the sports section of the paper, I was having visions of it. There was only one way to prove us right: the teacher’s word, and the matter was brought to her attention. I felt set to relish my victory with her validation. Her verdict, though, was a solid ‘AGAINST’.

It couldn’t have been right. Never had the newspaper mentioned a triumph “against” someone, but in the small world of the classroom in those pre internet days, the teacher was the oracle and I was wrong. The derision that came from the ‘triumph against’ brigade following her verdict was too much to take. I was angry and vowed never to believe anything that came out of the teacher’s mouth. The paper became my my full time teacher thereon.

The exposure to a written account of the world beyond what I was experiencing was explosive, and went far beyond nurturing my writing faculties. Sports, science, bloodshed, politics, rape, outer space, war, opinions—catalysts of precociousness began shaping the adolescent I was growing up to be. Along the way, major events seared themselves deep on to my memory— the 2004 Tsunami, Pluto getting cast out of the planet family, Sachin hitting the 15k milestone, Federer’s fifth Wimbledon win, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, 26/11 and the confirmation of the existence of the Higgs Boson. I can clearly recall what the front-page news looked like when each of these events transpired.

The sports section was a favourite, and got me following the Roger Federer–Rafa Nadal rivalry since its earliest days, long before it became cool for people of my generation to do so, announce their allegiance on social media and sling mud on the rival camp. Rafa’s sole claim to fame during those days was coming out on top in claycourt tournaments despite Roger Federer every single time.

The paper’s unfiltered reporting of our world had also started chipping away at my innocence. Many a time I came across a word or a deed that I couldn’t wrap my head around, and was left to connect the dots myself. Sodomise was one such word: It was in the headlines after some police constables in Chandigarh had done it to an undertrial in custody. The dictionary defined the word in more alien terms, so it didn’t help. I figured it must be something ‘bad’ because the article also spoke of petrol being poured into the victim’s anus.

Another time, I read an op-ed titled “The Taboo of Virginity”. Years later, when I finally learnt what virginity meant, my memory darted back to the title and the notion that losing one’s virginity is a taboo immediately took hold in my head. Why else were more and more women opting to have their hymen surgically reconstructed before their wedding, as the article had described? No one had to nudge me to think this way. It had been sitting meaningless and dormant in my mind like a landmine, activating and exploding the moment the meaning of a single word became clear.

As I rose through high school, I tried to cast my reading net beyond the newspaper—across books of fiction. Behind every such attempt was a hormonal impulse rather than a cerebral one. First, it was about a girl. The crush of my life seemed to be an avid reader of books. Too shy to speak to her, I decided I was going to read books, build an intellectual reserve of things to say and make my way to her heart. I picked up my first novel, a Dan Brown, at 16. Then there was more Dan Brown. Then happened and I forgot the girl.

‘Literotica’ is the portmanteau of ‘literature’ and ‘erotica’. It isn’t porn; it is amazing literature—an avenue to partake in prurient pursuits and get away guilt-free, because reading is an intellectual thing to do. I was
in the thick of IIT prep those days (the one time when reading the paper for anything more than five minutes was frowned upon at home, because I was supposed to be focussing on more important things). ‘IIT coaching’ has a way sapping the life out of you, as it invariably did out of me, so I needed something to lift my spirits. Literotica was that perfect something. In those days, Nokia’s Symbian phones with push buttons were the in thing, and I had one too. I remember spending chunks of money on 5 MB data packs and straining my eyes to read endless literotica on the tiny colour screen in the dark of the night. Every night. Who needed the girl when you had literotica for foreplay and yourself for the rest? It was a honeypot for the teenaged brain. You’ve probably been there. Call it what you want, but it is pure magic how something as abstract as words can trigger primal urges and bodily responses without any physical stimulus.

As high school graduation drew closer, I junked literotica in favour of a resurrected crush (same girl), and embarked on penning a ‘love letter’ to her. I threw in every fancy word I knew. Good writing was incomplete without complexity. She had to see that I knew big words and knew English even if I didn’t speak it (more on that later). Random statements from the letter that I still recall:

“You are an amalgamation of beauty and brains…” (she had to be an ‘amalgamation’ of something and something).

“Every day I pine for your affections…” (changed from “…long for your affections…”).

“I think you’re pretty pretty…” (kill me).

This was meant for a girl I’d almost never spoken to. I could’ve effortlessly counted on my fingers all the words that I’d spoken to any girl over those two years. Then, as if I didn’t trust my words to have expressed my love enough—at the bottom I drew a cheesy sketch of a guy blowing bubbles that morphed into hearts as they rose to reach the girl standing in a balcony further up. Those four pages of intense, passionate love, held together by stapler, never left my drawer. I’m grateful to Providence for my lack of courage.


The desire to read books ended sometime after high school, but not before surging one last time. I had happened to walk into a local library on a whim, and fell in love with the librarian on a whim (it was love at first sight). The next day I signed up for membership and felt great about telling her my name and email ID for their database; went back home with a copy of The Silence of the Lambs (Hannibal Lecter) and finished it in four days. Then I returned to take the next one, of course with a plan to ask her out on the side, but chickened out at the last moment and came back home with the next book. Then the same thing happened again. I ended up reading three Hannibal Lecter novels this way. Finally, I got bored midway through a novel called Atonement and asked her out. (She said no.)

After the embarrassment had receded, I decided I didn’t need to read books to get a girl. I became a proud non-reader, and curated an explanation for it:

Patience isn’t the strongest of my virtues. When I eat candy, I crush it with my teeth and experience the burst of sweet ecstasy, all at once. There’s no fun in waiting for it to melt in your mouth to savour a slow tasteless trickle. Why should one have to trudge through 400 pages to experience joy, to experience a story?

Tried it on a girl. She was impressed.


For all my ease with the written word, speaking has been an ordeal. I always struggled with pronunciation, enunciation, intonation, this, that … My tongue just would not twist to Anglophonic tunes.

“Shaking a can full of nails” is what my reading out loud sounded like to one of my teachers.

When you write, you can go back and write things differently. Speaking is far less forgiving. There’s no time to think. Goof up and there’s no window to erase your mistake. The other person will have heard it, and you’ll have made yourself look stupid. Mispronouncing words and making mistakes was very embarrassing, especially in the face of expectations that my writing sometimes created.

In my small circle, I had earned a name with my writing, and wasn’t going to squander it at any cost. Speech and oral fluency thus became a never-ending endeavour to chase perfection and prestige. Concurrent with this was my long-running inferiority complex stemming from being more comfortable with Hindi, and the relentless self-comparison with English speakers.

No one who spoke anything short of perfect English was spared my judgment—not even myself. I even shamefully (though silently) judged my mother for her English. For someone who had a really brief window to study the language, she spoke well and has continued to improve. I never saw any of that. I only heard the errors, and cringed at them. I felt embarrassed that she was even trying. A mother who did everything to ensure her son had a decent education; and her son whose first instinct upon receiving that education was to put her at the receiving end of his snobbery. Today, terribly ashamed as I am of that memory, I will never let myself get over it. When I hear someone make errors now, my mother and her struggles come to mind, and it has taught me to truly not judge someone for their English, and for many other things.

When we moved to Bangalore, I found myself ill-prepared to be among kids who spoke English by default. My friend circle didn’t expand beyond the Hindi-speaking kids (all boys). The English speaking
crowd, the cooler crowd, was where I wanted to be. I envied them, hated them and wanted to be one of them, all at the same time. This desperation pushed me to look up the dictionary every evening and pronounce words as per the phonetic code. Years of this practice would refine the ‘Indianness’ out of my pronunciation, though I never could start speaking English before I was through with school, and thus never could show my crush I also knew english!

Beginning my bachelor’s degree at college, I was very eager to defy my linguistic fate. Most of my new friends knew only a smattering of Hindi. Maybe I chose them such, making English the only way to survive. I also joined a Toastmasters (TT) club to speed up making the switch. My very first speech at TT, addressed to an audience of nine, felt like grating myself against metal spikes. I nearly puked my heart out. The temptation to leave the podium was strong, but I persisted, with their support. The first time was the hardest. Things started getting slightly easier with every speech.

One evening, I jerked awake to my mother looking for something on my table. Startled, and without actually thinking, I blurted – “What? What’s happening??”

Within a moment, I realised the implications of having spoken English sentences so spontaneously — I was close to achieving a mind that thought and dreamt in English. I fell back in bed and went back to sleep quite peacefully, reassured that a lifelong desire was finally within grasp.


In college, I also started this blog at a friend’s behest. Writing, till then, had been an impulse; the blog was supposed to require me to summon that impulse at will. While it largely remains an impulse to this day, I was able to rein it in and write regularly enough to be noticed for it. And so things began to move for me. Long story short: I began writing pieces for social service projects, botched an interview for an exchange program (throat went dry and the tongue betrayed me), came back and made it the following year, created a fundraiser largely built on a written narrative, and took the opportunity to present it to a small, international audience, all in English. It’s been a different life. This isn’t a bragging spree—my point is, taming English opened up opportunities for me that I never thought I would get, and somewhere along the path, my mind reconfigured itself to process information in the language by default. The switch happened.

Not for a moment can I discredit the role this transformation has had in whatever I’ve achieved. And that is the power this language has had over my fate.

Long ago, I dreamed of dreaming in English. Today, I do. After years of self-flagellation, I can hold a conversation in English. My younger self would’ve been proud, but I don’t see it as an achievement any longer. I’ve seen many deserving people passed up for opportunities because they weren’t fluent enough. I’ve seen fluency and charisma being used to create falsehoods.

The years have also given me the maturity to feel a sense of pride in my native tongue and in other Indian languages, and not place English on a pedestal, but that’s for another time. My Hindi has gotten a bit rusty (don’t get to speak it much down south), and I wish it weren’t the case. I wish to rattle on in Hindi nonstop, like old times. It’s strange—I subjected myself to so much torture just to be able to acquire fluency in a ‘foreign’ language, only to be overcome with longing to speak my mother tongue.

Would I change things if I could do it all over again?

I’m not sure.



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