Monday, February 29, 2016

Reading Louis Pasteur's Biography by René Dubos

I had just passed the 7th standard examination and was eagerly looking forward to becoming a High school student – with a capital h. Sharada Vilas High School (Mysore) was the school of choice. The application form gave a choice of the medium of instruction - Kannada or English. Having studied in Kannada until the seventh standard and my father being a vocal supporter of mother tongue as the medium of instruction, it was perhaps natural to choose Kannada. My father suggested that I do so. For the first time in my life, or so it seems to me, I rebelled against my father. Rebelled sounds sexy and macho but I guess I only whimpered and sulked and whined that I wanted to study in English. My father tried his best to persuade me to choose Kannada but his logic and reasoning did not have any effect on me. I was more worried about all my friends choosing English and my being left alone. Finally, my father conceded and I filled the form, with great relief. And thus, I started attending my high school classes.

The enormity of what I had gotten myself into, sunk in very soon.  In the lower classes, I had scored very good marks in English. Now, I hardly understood what was being taught. I realized that I did not have enough English to navigate the higher classes. This was a revelation.

I went to my father sheepishly and confessed what was happening and asked him what I should do. Now, when I look back, I am surprised (and am a little proud too, let me admit) that I did so. To his credit, he did not say, “I told you so” and ask me to change over to Kannada. (People who know my father, will chide me about the last sentence. How could I even suggest that he would do anything like that, is what they would say, I am sure)

He thought for a moment and asked me to read English books. I asked him what I should read. This appears to me to be a pretty silly question, now. My father had filled our house with books of all sorts. Children’s books, books on philosophy, science, politics, history, literature, art, dictionaries and encyclopaediae, you name it and he had books that would fall under that classification. All I had to do was explore and soon I would find what I could read. He did not tell me what to read right away. He again looked thoughtful and said he would give me something to read. In a day or two I asked him again and the book he chose was René Dubo’s biography of Louis Pasteur.

In my schoolboy eyes, it was a big book but not intimidatingly so. I sat in a corner of his room, (always referred to as Annan room – father’s room) and started reading the book. I plodded through some twenty-five pages and felt disheartened. Not much was going in. I had a faint idea of ‘what was happening’ but I was not sure. I hung my head and went back to him and told him what was happening. He suggested that I go through the book, not being concerned if I understood individual words or sentences. Read a sentence and move on to the next, but finish reading the book, was the message, if I remember right. 

I do not know when the magic happened. Soon, I was lost in reading. In a day or two I had finished it. I felt that I had understood whatever I had read. And the rest, as they, is history. At least my history, not world history. I was hooked. I read and read. There were enough books at home to choose from and I read obsessively. One casualty was Kannada books. I had read lots of those earlier and now I was bitten by the English bug. That too changed over time and my reading included a good sprinkling of Kannada too, again.

Decades later, this experience had an unexpected consequence. I had developed a fascination for the German language. I had the opportunity to attend some German language classes. I learned fairly well in an equivalent of the first level course of German as a foreign language prescribed by the Goethe Institute based on books called Moment mal. Grundstufe eins is what this course used to be called. I could not attend further classes due to work and family responsibilities. The desire to learn more and improve my knowledge of German lingered. 

It occurred to me one day: “If I could improve my English just by reading, after learning a little English, why not German too?” I decided to give it a shot. I searched on the web to find something suitable to read. I came across Der Spiegel online and found that I could subscribe to its newsletter. Using the minimal knowledge of the language I had, I did subscribe. I found that I could understand a little bit of the articles and news reports on science – Wissenschaft. I persisted and every day I read at least one article. Since a lot of the content in a report is already known - the background to the news item - it was fairly easy to understand or guess what it was saying. Over time, I started reading the sections on art, culture and travel too. (Kunst, Kultur, Reise). A friend, Pradeep, had generously gifted me his Langenscheidt Taschenwoerterbuch (Pocket Dictionary. A fairly large pocket, mind you) came in very handy. So did – an online translation dictionary. is now like a one stop shop for translating words from practically any European language to any other.

I have enough German to read and even translate German documents. This became a great asset since, in my professional life, I came across German Patent documents. I did not have to wait for a professional translation.

The motivation for writing this post is the earnest hope that it acts as a trigger or it gives hope and encourages to someone who wants to learn (or improve) a new language. 

Picture, courtesy Wikipedia, designated as Public Domain. 
Studio portrait of Louis Pasteur, restored (removed dust, scratches, and what looked to be a water stain)
Date:    Before 1895

Source File: Louis Pasteur, foto av Félix Nadar.jpg


  1. Lovely memory. Great lesson. Thank you.

  2. Keshava Murthy12:30 pm

    Interesting article born out of personal experience...It is very true that learning a new language surely opens up a new world and enriches us..

  3. Lovely recollection of (g)olden days

  4. Lovely recollection of (g)olden days

  5. Thanks Shruthi, Prashanth and Keshav!

  6. Very well written. Evokes memories of my reading habits. Unfortunately for me, my reading was confined to only English popular fiction; never serious literature.