Thank you, and goodbye, Tiwariji

July 28th, 2010 § 3 comments

I have just been informed by a friend that my Hindi school principal, Tiwariji (that’s ‘Mr Tiwari’ in Hindi) passed away on Monday.

I’m feeling the loss. He made my life better, in ways I never truly got till now. Tiwariji, along with a few other visionaries like my father’s childhood friend Srinivas Rai, banded together and brought change in the days when Hindi was a minority language in Singapore, and therefore not recognised officially.

Some background: In the Singaporean educational system, all children have to learn English as a first language from the time they enter kindergarten. In additional, they have to learn a second language, designed to be the child’s mother-tongue. When I started school, the options were Malay, Chinese or Tamil. I might be wrong, but I think this followed the major ethnicities in terms of percentage of population. And studying a second language was, and is, compulsory all the way to pre-university level. As a result, I learnt Chinese in kindergarten and Malay in primary school, because being a minority, my own mother-tongue, Hindi, just wasn’t available.

This essentially meant that there was a whole bunch of second-generation immigrant kids who were cut off from their ethnic language and culture. Most could understand it, because their parents spoke to them in Hindi, some could converse in it, and barely a handful could read or write. Despite my mother’s repeated valiant attempts to teach us the script, my sis and I barely knew the alphabets by the time we were able to converse fluently in Malay.
Not being able to study Hindi as a second language also put us at a disadvantage in terms of overall scholastic achievement. Most of us struggled with the second languages we picked. I remember my mother having a conversation with my Malay teacher in Primary 1, basically to alert her that I had no background in the language, and to give me some special attention. My Cikgu was kind enough to repeat instructions to me in English the first few months, but boy did I have to scramble as the term went on. The big picture result was that most minority mother-tongued kids did worse on their overall O and A Level grades, which of course affected the colleges and university courses available to them subsequently.

This was the argument Tiwariji and cohort brought before the relevant authorities. Now, I’m basing this on a 10-yr old’s understanding of the events that happened, but from what I recall, it was a loooong and involved process. It took years of work, all on a voluntary basis, including presentations before Parliament. Once Hindi was allowed as a valid second language in the educational system, they had to solve the practical issues of introducing a minority language in schools – teaching, testing and examination. They set up the Hindi Society, roped volunteers in, and started (what I think was) the first official Hindi School in Singapore. It had to be centralised, as there were too few students to introduce classes in regular schools, and therefore had to be outside school and extra-curricular activity days. And this is how, when I was 10, I found myself whisked off to school on a Sunday morning.

There were two classes back then. One for the ‘big kids’, those in secondary school, one for the small kids, the primary-schoolers. Ages ranged from 10 to 15, starting Hindi knowledge went from those who didn’t speak a word to some who could write numbers in Hindi. Not to mention we were a rowdy bunch, most of us having known each other from childhood, and therefore treating this as play time, instead of ‘serious school’.

Tiwariji became the principal of the school. During the six years I was there, it went from two class rooms in a rented regular school to a class for each different standard in multiple classrooms spanning two different school buildings. Looking at their website now, they have SEVEN different locations, with something called In School Parallel Programming across the country. (I’m guessing that’s where they teach the language in regular school during regular school hours.) They now have school uniforms and text books with the school logo on it. (Fun fact – part of the school logo is from a design my sis and I submitted for the logo competition they had.) All this, and the whole organisation is still voluntary.

On a personal level, I received an A1 grade for my Hindi O Levels. Had I continued with Malay, it definitely wouldn’t have been that. My aggregate O Level score would have gone from a single digit to double digits for sure. I wouldn’t have been writing letters to my mother in Singapore and extended family in India in Hindi when I moved to Australia. I wouldn’t have many of the cultural and historical references one only acquires by studying the language.

And I’m not the only one. My sis, my brother, my childhood friends, and thousands of other kids have benefited from to Tiwariji’s efforts. I’m not sure I ever thanked him. I mean seriously thanked him for all he has done. I remember the last time I met him, but I can’t remember what I said to him. The next time I return to Singapore, I’m gonna make a point to track down all the other elders and thank them in person. Although this is too late, thank you Tiwariji. I’m gonna do my best to leave the world a better place, thanks to you showing me how it’s done.

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