One of the many reasons I never felt at home in Delhi was Hindi or, to be precise, my lack of fluency in it. It has to be said here that before I moved to Delhi, I had nothing against the language. In fact, I was quite looking forward to the day when I would be jabbering away in it nonchalantly, tossing in a yaar here, an arrey there. After all, I had not been entirely bereft of Hindi in my life — we had studied it in school in Kerala as a third language for five years, and regurgitating the text we learnt by heart with nary a thought to grammar had been enough to top exams. And my English was fairly good, so I presumed that “flair” would extend automatically to all other languages, never mind that I had lived in Chennai for three years during college without progressing much beyond “Anna, evalavu” (How much, bhaiyya? — the standard question to auto-drivers).
But it was not to be.
My initial brave attempts consisted of beginning a sentence in Hindi and then leaving it hanging because I’d be utterly confused about whether to end it with a hoon, haan, hai or what seemed to be a bewildering number of options. This resulted in situations that had my North Indian friends in hysterics. Like the evening when I wanted to know whether the washerman would come and so asked, “Dhobi kab?” Result: hysterics.
My ignorance of the language apart, I encountered linguistic chauvinism for the first time. How can you not know Hindi, it’s your national language, some ignoramuses asked. Uhm, sorry guys, it’s not. (And I’m not the only one saying it. “... there is nothing on record to suggest that any provision has been made or order issued declaring Hindi as a national language of the country,” a bench of the Gujarat High Court said, in response to a public interest litigation asking that the government make it mandatory for details of manufactured goods to be printed in Hindi.)
Another classmate in journalism school chose to tell me an Akbar-Birbal story where Birbal compares other languages to the sound stones make rattling in a container, while a former colleague could not digest the fact that I did not know the Hindi word for wood.
And if you are with a bunch of North Indians, the conversation – or at least chunks of it – will invariably end up being in Hindi. That’s only natural. We Malayalis are no better — I remember a Tamilian friend in college ceasing to have dinner at our table in the hostel mess because the rest of us would always end up talking in Malayalam and she would have no choice but to finish her meal in utter silence. (I’m really sorry about that, Chitra, but if it makes you feel any better, I suffered enough in Delhi.) It got a little tiring to keep asking for translations of conversations, for both parties, and it wasn’t long before my enthusiasm to learn waned and turned to resentment. My flatmate, RC, who has been a victim, will vouch for this — I once barked at her for telling me a joke in Hindi I did not understand.
Anyhow, in the six years I was in Delhi, my Hindi finally could not help but improve a little, though not enough to crack jokes in it. (That, for me, would be the pinnacle, the Holy Grail of linguistic dexterity.) The improvement was accompanied by the occasional howlers, just to keep things real. Like yelling from my balcony to the kabadi wala (scrap dealer) standing below if he had toliyaan (towels) instead of tolne kay liye cheez (weighing scales).
But that, dear reader, is not the end of story. After moving to Bangalore, it turns out the language I end up speaking the most after English is, surprise, surprise, Hindi. Whether it be with my Telugu colleague in the administration department or the Kannadiga auto driver, my limited Hindi has stood me in good stead. There is, of course, a borrowed copy of “Conversational Kannada” in my bookshelf and I have learnt enough to understand an occasional snide remark about me in that language — but till I learn to crack a joke in Kannada, Hindi, I fear, will have to do. Yaar.
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