Quiet Revolutionary Shreya Iyengar’s Story
I remember the day I had to fill out a form for my third language in school. It was sometime in mid-February; the year was 2005; and I was all of 10 years old, my child-mind oscillating between the choices I had: Sanskrit or French. What was it to be?
After a lot of indecision, I finally made up my mind and carefully, painstakingly wrote my choice in blue ink. And that was that. The deal was sealed. At that time, I felt a sense of relief that I’d made my choice. Okay, then, I thought to myself. Now what? Little did I know that choice would turn around my entire universe in ways I couldn’t even begin to imagine.
In the beginning—the first year or so—I was a little disoriented. What was this beautiful but totally unfamiliar language, with all its unheard-of sounds? And why did each noun have a gender? It seemed unsettlingly alien and foreign in every sense of the word. It had funny rules. Why do we put the adjective after the noun, in certain cases, and why is the plural form not restricted to nouns alone? I had lots of questions and was, at best, an average student. Every time I felt uneasy, I shrank a little deeper into myself.
And somewhere along the way, between feeling slightly overwhelmed and trying to cultivate a basic liking for French, the unthinkable happened. I fell in love. It was not so much a fall as it was a crash. My normally steady and placid temperament was in an ecstatic turmoil. In a matter of months, I went from merely tolerating French to adoring it with a scary sort of intensity. And I think it was this all-consuming love that made the usually volatile terrain of adolescence significantly easier to negotiate.
I loved sitting in my class and absorbing whatever my brilliant and wonderfully gentle teacher had to say. Although I rarely participated—and even if I did, I had to be asked (which, to my introverted self, was a bit of a nightmare, of course)—I started feeling like I knew something that my peers didn’t: I had a special secret, which I guarded with my life. Learning French for five immensely gratifying years, I felt…protected. I felt a deep, enduring joy that went far beyond the classroom and the curriculum—and that feeling lights me up to this day.
I devoured French verbs like they were the yummiest chocolate-chip cookies. While most of my classmates seemed frustrated, I quietly blazed through grammar exercises and writing assignments, excelling at each one. At every chance I got, I submitted my pieces to the school magazine and was praised year after year. The shy, awkward little bookworm had found her place under the sun—and how! In my own quiet way, I shone. I had found my joy.
The feeling is indescribable: suffice it to say that part of you feels like your heart is going to burst. I felt a past-life connection with the language and the culture. With that sense of intuition that we introverts pay such close attention to, I knew that this is what I’m destined to do in some way or another.
As the years have passed (it’s been more than a decade of wonder, surprise, and fulfillment), my irrepressible love for the language has only deepened. It has enriched my understanding of myself, made me more accepting of myself and others, and taught me how to dream big, every day. Above all, it has taught me to accept myself just the way I am because with this precious gift that I have, I now know that I can be fearless. It is the gift of language, of understanding, of a love that transcends words or geographic boundaries.
For me, French is not a mere language, it is a way of life. It gratifies my old-world soul like nothing else in this world does.
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