Imagine nearly flunking in Sanskrit in school and then ending up as a Sanskrit scholar. Imagine chucking a flourishing career in advertising to obsessively pursue the mission of making the learning of Sanskrit fun.
That is the story of Rohini Bakshi.
The trajectory of her life changed when she moved to London with her family a few years ago. She studied Sanskrit along with one of her sons, went on to do her Masters from School of Oriental and African Studies and, as the cliché goes, has never looked back.
"It's like I was born to do this, and all that was required was for the stars to align," Bakshi, who now teaches Sanskrit at the City Lit College in London, tells Catch.
Bakshi runs the popular #SanskritAppreciationHour or #SAH on Twitter where she is trying to make the "divine language" hip. It's the language which is said to have the most flawlessly structured grammar.
Of course she has had to deal with the obvious - how can one possibly teach a language in 140 characters? Why did she choose an inappropriate medium like Twitter to teach a language like Sanskrit?
Bakshi crushes such conjectures with - the idea is not to teach, but to inspire.
The best part about #SAH is that everyone is welcome irrespective of gender, colour, nationality, sexual orientation, religious belief, political inclination or social outlook.
The panel of guest lecturers is equally eclectic. A Muslim in Malaysia, a New York Jew, a science student in Bangalore, a middle-aged Punjabi housewife in London, a Guruvayur-born Namboodiri Brahmin, an IT consultant in Chandigarh, a Yajurvedī in Sweden. The material discussed can range from prayers to recipes from a 17th-century Sanskrit cookbook to mathematical formulae from medieval manuals.
Bakshi's #SAH experience has now taken the shape of a book - Learn Sanskrit Through Your Favourite Prayers. She tells us about her journey.
LH: Teaching Sanskrit in 140 characters sounds impossible. How did the #SanskritAppreciationHour begin on Twitter?
RB: First, 'teaching' Sanskrit is close to, but not impossible in 140 characters. Because we 'teach' in a series of tweets, which eventually are storified and can be referred to by a learner. Second, and more importantly, we have never claimed to 'teach' the language on Twitter.
The platform is called Sanskrit 'Appreciation' Hour - a session which is designed to enthuse beginners, make them realise that Sanskrit can be easy and fun. At the end of each session I say clearly - 'if you enjoyed this, why not consider joining a course or a finding tutor'.
The book Stotra Ranjani is based on the same spirit, but is made especially for those people who cannot commit to a course. It is far more detailed and precise than online teaching. Because a full grammatical explanation has been given after consultation with three orthodox Brahmin acharyas, there is practically zero scope for mistakes. One could learn Sanskrit using Stotra Ranjani by itself, or with a primer.
LH: Bibek Debroy (the economist) says your idea to teach Sanskrit on Twitter was 'mad'. How much energy did you have to expend to prove him and others wrong?
RB: If Bibek had any doubts about how effective this effort would be, he kept his reservations to himself at the time! He was very supportive at the start, and has never stopped being supportive. At one stage he did say we would be lucky if we reached 1,000 followers. All that did was make me determined to prove him wrong.
Energy can be both positive and negative. In this case what might have been negative converted automatically into positive energy, and positive results. You just have to keep going. As Christopher Morley said - the big shots are only little shots who keep shooting.
LH: Why do we dread learning Sanskrit so much? And why has there been so much emphasis on rote learning, on mugging up everything without understanding the inherent rules of grammar?
RB: I think you've answered your question yourself. Most people who dread learning Sanskrit do so because of the way it was taught at school. We were made to mug up table after table, and teaching was not learner-centred. Teachers had to complete a syllabus and I don't think they cared much about what students were getting out of it. So long as students 'scored' everyone was happy. When we can't apply what we learn in a classroom in our lives, learning becomes relevant. If I spend two years learning grammar, and I still can't have a simple conversation in Sanskrit, I have to ask myself what is the point of this?
LH: Do you think traditionally there were casteist reasons for keeping the learning of Sanskrit off the limits of ordinary folks?
RB: The history of our tradition is a very long and complex one, so to reduce it to a simple question like this is problematic for me. There were times and places when this was undoubtedly true. But we get dealt a hand every time we approach a project, and I would like to focus all my attention on the here and now. If there is any such feeling today, I have not been exposed to it.
I have orthodox Brahmin teachers who support the programme, who have partnered on the book Stotra Ranjani, and I have never seen or heard them say they will not teach Sanskrit to someone because a person is of a certain caste, or religion or gender. At #SanskritAppreciationHour, all are welcome.
LH: What would you suggest needs to be done in our curriculum to make the learning of Sanskrit a pleasurable exercise?
RB: We have to start with teacher training, and the method of teaching itself. If Sanskrit is to compete successfully with other language options - the worst way is to make it compulsory. Not only do kids hate that, it makes teachers complacent.
It's important to tailor your approach to your audience. If you are dealing with pre-teen then why not first teach them sentences for use in their daily lives, and then work back to grammar from there? If you are teaching older people, you could first teach them mantras and then work back to the grammar. (Not trying to essentialise either group - just saying.)
Likewise a corporate programme might include Sanskrit for the work day, or leisure activities to begin with, rather than beginning with the Rama table. At City Lit where I teach (in London), teachers mime, act, demonstrate, use music, dance, do whatever they have to do to make learning engaging. That would be a start.
LH: Your book is an excellent effort in - if I may use the words - demystifying and deglorifying Sanskrit. What else do you have up your sleeve to take this effort forward?
RB: Thank you, that's very kind of you. More books, I hope, based on the success of this one. Going forward, I'd like to add an audio CD to the books. It's so important to hear Sanskrit when you learn it. It teaches you to be precise and mindful. We've mulled over many other ideas as a team, like proper teaching sessions on Google hangout, developing online courses and so on.
My sons, who are young men, tell me I should look at other social media channels like Periscope, Snapchat and Instagram. But for now I'd like to retain complete focus on #SanskritAppreciationHour. There is much scope for improvement here itself.
LH: Do you get trolled/made fun of on Twitter? What does your most gratifying day look like on Twitter?
RB: I get trolled as much as anyone else - mostly because of my so-called 'liberal' views. It's a free world. But I never block anyone unless they get abusive. I don't think there is any place for abuse in the public arena.
People have suggested I separate my personal handle from Sanskrit learning, but in my book that is cheating. I am who I am, and I love Sanskrit. Anyone who actually wants to learn, deals with that - and nearly 12K have done so, successfully.
My most gratifying day on Twitter sees major interaction on #SanskritAppreciationHour - lots of questions, doubt clearing, sharing of audio and RT of tweets during the session. And at the end when I say - If you enjoyed this session, connect with @sudarshanhs to find a course or teacher close to you - and they do - my day is made.
LH: I also like the fact that this is a liberal and apolitical project. People from all walks of life and across the globe are involved. Was this deliberate?
RB: I would say it is natural rather than deliberate. This is who I am. A devout Hindu, and a liberal. The two are not mutually exclusive. And anyone who thinks they are or should be is missing the point and spirit of being Hindu. I have always known that if I act like a politician and say the 'right' things, I could double or treble the following. But I would be living a lie.
LH: How did the switch from a successful career in advertising and PR to making Sanskrit hip come about?
RB: I can only call it kismet. Although I nearly failed at Sanskrit in school (back to teaching methods!?), it is a language I've longed to learn since I was a child. You'd think it would have been easy back home - but it was impossible.
I took a sabbatical when my husband's job brought us to London. Our sons were preparing for school exams with a view to university application. I studied Sanskrit along with one of my sons, went on to do the MA at SOAS - and never looked back. It's like I was born to do this, and all that was required was for the stars to align.
(Learn Sanskrit Through Your Favourite Prayers by Rohini Bakshi and Narayanan Namboodiri is available in bookstores and on Juggernaut.)