"Mai commin, Sir?"

Thoo Sir wanted to teach us English in English, while we preferred learning English in Nepali


Thick-framed glasses, a wide nose, and a bushy salt-and-pepper mustache. A front curl peeked out of his cap if he missed his haircut. He wore a full-sleeved shirt and cotton trousers.

His appearance was unremarkable, lacking the fashion sense of the stylish Dharan people of the day. He seemed like a tired, middle-aged man by the end of class, covered in chalk dust. He was easily overlooked until he spoke English because his English was impossible to ignore.

This man was dealing with a significant issue. He wanted to teach English in English, while we students preferred learning English in Nepali. His pronunciation was different from other English teachers, causing students to struggle to understand him. They started calling him Thoo Sir because they heard ‘to’ (/tu:/) as ‘thoo’ (ठू), but no one knows who first started this nickname or when it began. No one knew where he acquired his accent from, either.

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Every morning, the bus would drop him off at Ghopali Tol from Dharan around 9AM, and he would walk 12 minutes to school from there. Students would have to interact with him in English or listen to a kind of English they could not understand.

I had heard his infamous nickname long before I attended Thulo School, the only secondary school in the village, after passing out from the primary Sano School.

He never inflicted any physical punishment on us, however his frustration was harder to handle. He would say things that friends could use to mock and tease fellow classmates.

Students would dread his presence in the classroom because unlike other teachers who would read slowly and explain in Nepali, he insisted on speaking English correctly and would not let us off the hook until we did so as well.

I only had him as a teacher in my Grade 10 class, and I remember being late on the very first day. "Mai commin, Sir?" I asked from the door.

"Ask properly," he replied, without even looking at me.

I asked again, but he continued cleaning the blackboard without paying any attention to me.

"Sir, Mai commin?" I changed the word order.

"Repeat after me," he instructed. That day, I learnt for the first time that 'Mai commin' was actually 'May I come in?'

"You don't even know basic English? Silly girl!" he said, and of course, my friends teased me for a long time about that.

His dissatisfaction with a student’s pronunciation silenced the class. While I was usually vocal and asked questions in other subjects, I could not utter a word in his class for fear of being ridiculed again. 

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I would formulate questions in my mind but struggle to voice them. Sometimes, I would start in English and end up speaking in Nepali, which would upset him even more.

He would not engage in conversations in Nepali, preferring to explain things in English. His excessive use of English gave us all chronic headache.

One day, in the middle of class, I asked in Nepali, "Thoo Sir, my pad is leaking. I will go home, change, and come back in five minutes."

"What did you just say?" he asked in English, lowering his reading glasses, revealing a pair of tired eyes, and a bruise on the bridge of his nose caused by the weight of the frame.

Sanitary napkins were not yet available, so we sisters would have to run to my nearby home to use one of our mother's old cotton saris as pads. But these were not absorbent enough for heavy bleeding. There was no door or roof in the school toilet, making it impossible to change at school.

I never felt embarrassed about asking to be excused, and neither the teachers nor students used to make a big deal out of it. Since he had responded to my Nepali, I assumed his 'WHAT?' was in response to my request to go home to change my pad.

I repeated my request, this time to assure him that I would return in exactly five minutes. But his "What did you just call me?" was actually about my publicly addressing him as “Thoo Sir”. 

My bench-mate Bishal tried to warn me to keep quiet. But I continued, "Thoo sir. Everyone calls you Thoo sir behind your back. Don't you know?"

"I know but no one said it to my face before."

Quickly correcting myself, I said, "BB Sir, please allow me to go home. I won't address you as Thoo Sir anymore."

"Thoo Sir again," he chuckled, lightly tapping my head with the book in his hand. "Go on, run!"

All these years later, I realised that it took a lot of effort for him to respond the way he did. Unlike other teachers who only focused on the top students, he would treat all students equally, change the seating arrangement, shifting students from the front to the back. 

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After leaving school and moving to Kathmandu, I began learning English and found the language fascinating. It took years to overcome my hesitation, but I eventually understood why Thoo Sir insisted on teaching English in English. I wished he had been more creative in making us appreciate the language and understand its importance.

We used to believe that Thoo Sir had the best English in the world and was forcing fluency on us when all we needed was 32 marks to pass. There was not much interest in learning English in those days.

Thoo Sir was ahead of his time in grasping the importance of a global language. He knew there was a world beyond our village of Madhesha and the SLC exams. He was not interested in our exam marks, he only wished us to understand English in English. And today, I am glad we had Thoo Sir as our English teacher.

Anbika Giri is a novelist and author of children’s books in Nepali. Angrezi is her monthly column in Nepali Times about learning English in Nepal. Her previous column was Thappad.


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