Widowed by English

People

Widowed by English

Illustration: Namaah/ Arré

“K

oi discount nahi milega, ji? Yeh mera third time hai, aapke yahan…”

The petite young woman peers over the tall help desk of Touchstone English Coaching Centre in Patiala, hoping to get a markdown. Jashan Waraich, with her long hair plaited into a Punjabi guth and a yellow salwar kameez, is a cheerful sight. But her voice is tinged with disappointment. She waits for a response but all she gets from the receptionist is a finger pointed to a large red-lettered sign. It says, ‘English Only Zone.’ Unable to meet the unspoken imperative, she walks away. It’s not the prospect of forking over cash for yet another test that’s bringing her down. It’s the fear that tomorrow, on her seventh attempt at IELTS (International English Language Testing System), she might fail once again.

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Jashan is a regular at English coaching centres. After trying a few in the tiny town of Dhuri, she came to the institute in Patiala with great hope. They’d promised her a pass. This was to be her chance to sail straight through to the shiny, resplendent shores of Calgary, Canada, where her husband of two years awaits her arrival.

Jashan has waited, prayed, trained, and tried for the reunion. One-on-one tuitions, coaching classes, even immersion modules at ‘guaranteed results’ centres, she has done it all. Her institute is one of the thousands of coaching franchises which mushroomed to meet the demand of a 2011 amendment, making an English test compulsory for those applying for a spouse visa to the UK and USA. Their huge hoardings, of shiny brunettes with light eyes and American teeth, dot the highways of Punjab, promising a life in the ‘promised land’.

As a student at the local Punjab School Education Board elementary in her hometown of Patran, Jashan was introduced to her now nemesis in Standard 4. “Tab jaake maine A,B,C dekhi pehli baar. Par paanchvi class tak mujhe English main naam tak likhna nahi aaya,” she says, turning the pages of her phonetics guide. To live with a husband she’s barely gotten a chance to know, she now has to prove her proficiency at the language.

Jashan got married in the winter of 2013. Her husband returned to manage an Indian restaurant in Calgary, and she got to work on accents and syntaxes at a class in Dhuri, her married home. The matrimonial bond has since been sustained via a smartphone (her mother-in-law tends to monopolise calls made to the landline). Jashan’s was an arranged match and she was ready for the challenges of that. What she had not prepared for was a final scoreboard that read IELTS – 7, Jashan Waraich – 0.

Even as she prepares for her next attempt, Jashan’s hopes of ever re-uniting with her husband have withered. In a world where there are football widows, golf widows, Jashan and a thousand women like her are Punjab’s English widows.

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On the day of the dreaded test of IELTS (pronounced as I-lets, to rhyme with the Punjabi pronunciation of toilets) Jashan joins the lines at a three-star hotel with the other hopefuls, passports in hand, hours before registration begins. The new brides are recognisable by their chuda-laden arms, their ceremonial henna still vivid. Then there are the veterans – the ones whose many failed attempts have made their plight an in-joke among invigilators.

Over 10,000 aspirants sit for the exam every month in the state. Patiala is the hub of this cottage industry in southern Punjab with more than 130 IELTS coaching centres. And the queues outside the exam halls have more and more women. These women do not understand Hindi, let alone English and the familiar faces have stumbled over a dozen times. Even if they luck out and clear the first level of multiple-choice questions, they fail the listening and speaking tests.

“Our young women have stepped up to the challenges. An NRI daughter can change the family’s future, just like a son. Once a sibling is settled abroad, the others too, follow.”

Jashan

The exam personnel, young, urban, and English speaking, recognise them but avoid their displays of familiarity. Their coffee-break chatter is incomplete without the mention of the ‘legend’. They all remember the woman. She has given the test five times in the last year and appeared several times before that too. She brings along a pouch with rice and vermillion and does a tilak ceremony at her desk before the test begins. The versions vary, as each recounts her desperate attempts to loud chuckles. This “craze for NRI-dom” mystifies them and they have no idea how these women afford repeated attempts.

Each attempt at the IELTS is a ferocious 10 grand. It’s not easy, and certainly not feasible. Wives line up for coaching classes as soon as they get the phone call announcing that the husband has obtained a “Permanent Card”. In an average household, financed by the few hundred dollars sent by the NRI husband, hope and money is often in short supply. But an IELTS certificate is the now the most trumpeted asset in the matrimonial market, with “fair skin” and “homeliness” taking a backseat.

When, Gurjeet Walia, the founder and director of the popular IELTS preparatory Sophiya Consultants started in 1997, there was not a single girl in the batch of 20 students. Now 50 percent of his clients are women. His hypothesis is that drugs have laid waste to the future of so many young men in Punjab that parents have transferred their immigration dreams to their daughters. “Our young women have stepped up to the challenges. An NRI daughter can change the family’s future, just like a son. Once a sibling is settled abroad, the others too, follow.”

By 3 pm, Jashan is done with the test. She walks out of the examination centre with a heavy step. The official results will come out in another two weeks but Jashan knows she’s failed again. She clutches her cellphone as she makes her way back to the train station for her three-hour, second-class ride to Dhuri. Her cellphone wallpaper glows with images of snow-laden Calgary – a place that seems more far away now than ever before.

“Angrez chale gaye, ab Angrezi ka raaj hai,” she says, cursing the British who once ruled India. She’s going back home to lick her wounds in peace. In a few weeks, once she’s gathered the courage, she will return to Patiala and start all over again.

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