The Thappad

How a 9-year-old was discouraged from learning English because of a slap


This piece is not about Tapasi Pannu’s Bollywood movie, Thappad. But the echo of that slap from childhood still echoes in my ear. 

It was the first and only time my father ever laid a hand on me. It could happen again, since Nepali parents have a tendency to believe that no matter how old you are, you are always a child. They can hit you even in your 30s. 

My father, a retired high school principal, seldom raised his voice at us while we were growing up. His silence and stern gaze were nevertheless frightening to us youngsters, and struck fear in our hearts. 

As children, we never dared speak to him directly. Our mother acted as an intermediary, even in trivial matters like buying a ball-point pen for Rs4.

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This was the 1990s, and we all excelled in studies. We were disciplined children who never uttered a curse word. We respect our elders. We were the epitome of well-behaved children.

So imagine our shock when I was subjected to physical punishment from my father for the first time. And it all had to do with my use, or misuse, of the English language.

We started learning English in Grade 4. I had topped not only my  class, but the entire school. I could recite what was on any page in my text book. I had a photographic memory. 

I excelled not only in academics, but also in General Knowledge. I could rattle off all the countries of South Asia and their capitals and heads of state. 

My sister and I were the only two students in our class who had mastered the multiplication table up to 20. One day, our primary school principal announced that only students who knew the table up to 20 could go home, while the rest had to stay back and keep learning until they did. My sister and I found ourselves waiting until evening for our classmates to catch up.

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I was 9, and also starting to learn to spell simple English words. I took immense pride in my progress because my grandfather did as well. However, it wasn't enough for my father.

That day, I was doing my English homework, while my father and his colleagues were engrossed in a political conversation. One of his colleagues suddenly asked, "Which grade are you in?"

"Fourth," I replied proudly.

He continued, "What is your roll number?" (Ah, the roll number, a prestigious measure of talent in those times.)

"One," I answered confidently.

He then asked me to recite the multiplication tables for 7, 9, 13, 17, and 19. Which I did, and I noticed my father’s eyes gleaming with pride.

My father’s other friend was also interested and asked me what I was writing. 

When I responded “English”, he asked me to write out the lowercase alphabet — widely regarded as the more challenging aspect of English writing. I guess he was trying to confirm if I truly deserved the Roll Number 1 position. 

To everyone's surprise, I swiftly wrote out the lower case alphabets from a-z. Satisfied, he was about to return to the political conversation when my father abruptly asked me, "Can you spell 'dog' for Uncle?"

“I can,” I said. “D-O-G,”

"And how about 'god'?" my father pressed on. I spelled god, and everyone was impressed.

Then my father asked me to spell ‘bag’. In those days, children attending government schools in rural Madhes had to carry our books cradled in our left hands. Sometimes, they held the books tightly against their chest with both hands, like parents carrying a child. 

School bags were fancy and rare. Only private school students had bags. You could be sure a student carrying a school bag, wearing shoes and a tie would be attending a private school. 

I had never carried a school bag, and did not know how to spell it. I looked up at the ceiling and squirmed, and my father’s eyes widened. The lines on his forehead showed disappointment. 

It must have been less than a minute, but it felt like an eternity. The more time I took, the more they saw me as unworthy of having Roll Number 1. To escape my predicament, I blurted out: “B-O-G." 

That was it. My father rose from his stool and slapped me on my face. No one stopped him. His colleagues tried to console me by urging me to study harder. 

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I was in shock. I had never imagined that my father would ever hit me. The slap did not just hurt me physically, but left a deep emotional scar. I fell ill with a fever that evening, and everyone knew the reason.

No one said a word to my father. My grandfather consoled me, but said that I needed to study even more diligently. As if I had not been studying diligently before. 

I have hated the English language ever since. I never dedicated myself to learning English properly in class. And I hated English even more after we had Thoo (ठू) Sir. But that is a story for some other time.

Anbika Giri


Anbika Giri is a novelist and author of children’s books in Nepali. This is the first of a series of monthly columns on learning English in Nepal.

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