Random Thoughts

My Hindi Lessons

That I was doomed in this language was a foregone conclusion. We moved to Jhimli when I was seven years old. Getting me admitted into to a 'good' school was going to be a nightmare, I knew that from experience. I was after all the veteran of five schools in five different cities till then and was not even ten. And each time it had only been worse. At Jhimli, Hindi added to my woes. I had never heard the language spoken except when I woke up around the intermissions of Bollywood movies in the movie hall to eat my dinner and promptly fall asleep when the lights went out and action resumed. Though my strange sleeping habits were just perfect for my parents to catch the evening shows in the neighborhood theatre, it did not do much for my language skills. 

I have lived and traveled in most of India, felt the subtle and profound differences between state to state in our linguistically and culturally divided country. In my childhood, it used to be like a whole new world each time one traveled several hundred miles. There are similarities among neighbors, sometimes the languages have many common words between them, the festivals and religious customs are the same but that is the extent of oneness in the texture of the land that is politically one. Though there are many who would profess that India is all about unity in diversity, I did not see too much of the said unity as a kid. Doordarshan was the great leveler which brought the diverse cultures together under common thrall of cheap soap operas, which until then was alien to India. There was some semblance of cultural oneness thereafter.

When I arrived in Jhimli two decades ago, I was an alien who was born in the East, raised in the West and the South and was now trying to seek my roots once again. Jhimli is not very far away from where I was born but the similarities are far outweighed by the differences between the two places.

We speak Bengali at home. My parents attended vernacular medium schools and learnt English only under duress when they moved from their home state to seek employment elsewhere in the country. Ironically, while Hindi is India's national language, vast sections of the population are completely innocent about it. An average Bengali's command over Hindi is ludicrous at best. In the urban areas throughout the country one has a better chance of being understood in English than in Hindi. Regional dialects reign as one moves into the countryside. 

Southern India has traditionally been overtly anti-Hindi and has protested vociferously against any political move to shove Hindi down their people's collective gullet. I spent many years in the South before coming to Jhimli. In most schools in India one learns English and the local language as the first and second language in no particular order. If one is an outsider to that state, the local language is often as good as a foreign language. More often than not parents teach the kids their mother tongue at home, With three languages to deal with in addition to a demanding school curriculum, most kids do not take up a fourth language - which might be Hindi.

Jhimli's local language was Hindi. And there was no way I could avoid learning it while I stayed there. So here I was at Jhimli trying to get admitted to the 3rd grade blissfully ignorant of the lingua franca. My mother had given me a crash course in the few days we got between our move and my school admission test, but she had obviously not appreciated the gravity of the situation. I did some Math and English and was nearing the end of the general knowledge section of the admission test, when a portly woman strode into the room. There was a grim determination on her face as she held an innocuous piece of paper in her hand. Who would have guessed that there in lay my undoing ? I was almost about to leave after turning in my answer script when this woman motioned me to remain seated. There was something dark and foreboding about the whole thing.

Call it sixth sense if you will, but I did sense calamity at that very instant. My heart pounded and my hands turned clammy in a sudden rush of angst. A blank sheet of paper was placed before me and I was asked to get ready for a spelling and dictation test. The words came out of her mouth like cannon balls fired across enemy lines. I gathered myself to face the salvo only to realize that I did not have the faintest idea of how to spell anything at all. The words sounded familiar but foreign and the smattering of Hindi that I had thanks to the Hindi lessons on the train to Jhimli was wholly inadequate to keep pace with her. I turned in the paper almost as pristine as it had come to me. 

The school decided to take me in but in the 2nd grade because the Hindi teacher had seen no hope for me getting up to speed with the demands of the 3rd grade. Well, I was seven and my classmates were merely six and nothing if my life till then had caused me deeper anguish. I felt as old as the hills and wished to run away to escape the ignominy and shame of studying with kids half my age. This was not about arithmetic, rather a feeling that I could not explain to anyone. My parents could clearly not see what the brouhaha was all about, the world had not come to an end. It did not help that I was a lot taller than the other kids and did not know a word of their language. The quest for a Hindi tutor started in sober earnest but it was a while before we could find one. The milkman rendered yeoman services as my Hindi tutor till a more suitable alternative could be found. A semi-literate old man, he was hardly the model tutor but he did his best to help. My language skills were retrogressing rapidly and my Hindi teacher's face froze into an ugly scowl as soon as she set her eyes upon me.

I had ardently hoped to escape the ferocious Mrs. Kadambi after our first encounter on the day of the admission test. But it turned out that she taught the whole school Hindi and there was no escaping her until 10th grade. I felt like a tiny insect being squashed each time she looked at me. We had a spellings test within a week after I started at my new school. I scored a whopping two out of twenty five. Way to go ! I told myself, basking in the inward glow of achievement and pride. A few days ago I did not know the alphabet and look at me now. I must have been sitting with this smug look on my face when Mrs. Kadambi asked all of us who had scored less than ten out of twenty five to stand up. I was not in the most illustrious company, I could see only too clearly but I could explain that, couldn't I ? 

We were lined up and marched out of the class and into one of the kindergarten classes. Mrs. Kadambi announced to the kids in her big voice. 'These are the children who never study and who feel no shame to perform as miserably as they do in class. They shall remain standing here for the rest of the day so that the little ones can learn what they must never become.' She sailed out of the room her clothes billowing in her anger and then the little brats began to snicker at us. Most of my companions were regulars on the kindergarten circuit so they did not attach too much importance to the audience but I felt myself sinking deeper and deeper into the valley of humiliation. It seemed like an eternity had passed when we could get back to our class.

It would be overstating the case if I claimed that my Hindi grades improved dramatically after this incident. But the truth is, that was my last tour of the kindergarten classes. I started to write my first sentences with all the grammar and gender gone awry. And my heart almost leapt out when Mrs. Kadambi summoned me to her desk to go over my humungous language lapses. She was amazed at my facility to misspell and mangle a language that was so similar to my mother tongue - Bengali. 'What language do you speak at home?' she would snap. 'How can't you get a single sentence straight after spending six months in my class?' 'Why can't you read correctly? Even the kids in the 1st grade read better than you.' I was the picture of docility as I stood there weathering the storm in the full view of my classmates - the most appreciative and attentive audience one could wish for - in other circumstances. But deep inside my will to never make an effort to learn was steeling.

My first friendships with classmates formed a few years down the line. My spoken Hindi was so abominable that I rarely opened my mouth before going over a sentence several times mentally. English was treated with hostility by most of the local kids. The south Indians with their natural apathy for Hindi were ready to welcome me into their fold. My ignorance made me more like them than the Besaris at Jhimli and English got us together. It helped that I had spent the first seven years of my life in the South - that made it so much easier for us to relate to each other in this alien land that was Jhimli. That is the sad truth about India - our pretensions of unity don't amount to much in reality.

In the meanwhile our milkman was fired. The reasons were the usual - the milk was getting diluted in a geometric progression from day to day and besides my father said that he had enough of the early morning showdowns between the milkman and my mother - it ruined the day for him even before it begun. With that, the position of my Hindi tutor fell vacant. I must have been around ten then and already had informed opinions on subjects such as Hindi tutors, who I felt must all be clones of the formidable Mrs. Kadambi. It was an impasse. Tutor after tutor was rejected on 'frivolous' grounds. My parents were reaching the end of their tether with me and it was ultimately decided that my mother would take charge of my Hindi. I was warned of dire consequences if I did not fall in line this time. That was indeed a most fortunate decision. Being new to the language herself, she had to first teach herself before she could teach me. But I was confident that she would make it. Ma I was sure, would take the bite out of Hindi and I was not wrong.

Life was growing busier. I had been in Jhimli for long enough to not be called a 'new-comer' and that made me more acceptable to the locals who had spent generations in this small industrial town. But they still viewed me and my parents suspiciously - not quite willing to let in a breath of fresh air into their etiolated world. We led a largely reclusive life in Jhimli and when I came of age, I waited for the time when I could leave Jhimli and go out into the world. In the high school years, Mrs. Kadambi had grown used to me and thanks to my mother's efforts I was not doing as badly as she had expected me to. She largely ignored me, which was better than her strident upbraiding.

In the tenth grade, we got ourselves a new Hindi teacher. Mrs. Kadambi was very sore with the school's management for treating her so shabbily for her years of dedicated service. She cast spiteful glances at the new-comer who everyone agreed had a better personality and not to mention that she taught well too. It was sad but true that even her most favored students showed Mrs. Kadambi as much loyalty as I did. Mrs. Mishra was twenty something, had a pretty smile and a sweet voice. What a welcome change! In the process of getting acquainted with the class she asked us to read a passage from the day's lesson - a short story. When it was my turn, the whole class was out there trying to prompt me. I could not get past a single word before being prompted. It appeared to be understood that I would need help that I could get. The new teacher looked at me with some concern. 'Is anything the matter?' she asked the class in general and looked at me for an answer. I resumed reading but the cues would just not stop. That was the last time I was asked to read in Mrs Mishra's class. 

At the end of the year, sometime before the board exams, Mrs. Mishra told me 'You would not have cleared the board exams had it not been for your hand writing. Its tough for an examiner to believe that a candidate with such a beautiful writing, could be writing a ton of rubbish. It amazes me that you spent eight long years learning Hindi and yet are completely clueless about it'. It was not a reprimand, a mere statement of facts. The whole class heard her, but I felt nothing beyond a twinge of amusement. I decided to work on my penmanship, which seemed to be my only hope. 

My mother could deal with literature, but the esoteric rules of Hindi grammar had her all at sea. Help came in the form of a classmate who was a natural with the language. She scored the highest grades in Hindi and it seemed like breeze to her. She listened to me ramble about my woes with gender of common nouns - the greatest oddity of the Hindi language. Her solution left me dumbstruck. 'Try to remember any Hindi movie song with that word you are trying to figure the gender. Use the same gender as in the song. Its fail-safe - you can never go wrong'. Lesson over, class dismissed. A zillion Hindi movies are churned out of Bollywood each year and for each movie there is, there are a couple of dozen songs. She had hit a veritable gold mine - but unfortunately it was not going to accessible to me. I had seen merely a couple of dozen Hindi movies in my life and my memory of song lyrics was not worth talking about. 

My mother remained a bunch of tangled nerves until I the day I got my board exam report. I had by some quirk of fate not flunked Hindi. Had sobriety not prevailed in the end, I would have thrown the mother of all parties to celebrate the 'last of Hindi'. But I had to put up with two more years of suffering as I had the wholly inequitable choice between Hindi and Biology in the 11th and 12th grade. My calligraphy (or Mrs. Mishra's admiration thereof) might have got me away with my atrocious Hindi but I knew better than to tempt fate with Biology. Hindi thus returned to my life and with vengeance.

My friends feared the worst for me and my mother threw a fit when she saw the syllabus. There was to be prose, poetry and drama in addition to some very complicated language and grammar stuff. The new Hindi teacher was quite a specimen. A man in his late twenties, with his hair dyed in henna, mouth permanently stained with beetle juice and his eyes lined with khol, he fancied himself to be a Mughal poet minstrel. Without the least provocation he would roll his eyes heaven wards and break into Urdu poetry which none of us could understand. His charms were entirely lost upon the girls in our class but everyone thought he was rather amusing. We caught up with engineering and medical school entrance exam preparations while he tried in vain to develop our literary sensibilities. I had no idea what was going on in class, but fortunately there were many others like me.

Our khol-ed and henna-ed friend was replaced by a Mrs. Verma in a few months. The day she stepped into our class was the day she walked straight into the hearts of the guys. She was as pretty as a picture and dimpled into smiles. Her long silken braid sashayed as she walked, anklets and glass bangles tinkling. Suddenly, the Hindi lessons became infinitely more interesting. Men vied for her attentions and had her repeat the significant lines from romantic poetry feigning incomprehension. Mrs. Verma was quite appreciative and responsive of such attentions and Hindi classes became a great time for us to unwind from the stressful exam preparations that almost consumed our lives. Her favorite student was a pale and anemic looking guy who at that time was deeply in love with the girl who sat across from him diagonally. 

I was privy to the progress of this affair from its inception to its end. And that was not for any special reason. It just so happened that I sat directly behind the object of his attentions and he sat across from her, a narrow aisle separating our desks. One afternoon during the Hindi class, he started out to draw her profile on his desk (which was all he could see of her from where he sat) with a piece of chalk. This was before Mrs. Verma had come into our lives. I have seen boredom do the strangest things to people, but this really stands out for being so exceptional. From the time the sketch was complete there was no looking back. The poor girl was pursued relentlessly for several years after we left school. A few years ago I heard from a common friend that she is now happily married to someone else and our friend has found it worth his while to get on with his life. It would be difficult to predict what might have happened if someone else had that seat. Would he have drawn her face instead ? Would he have proceeded to fall in love, nevertheless ? 'Fait Accompli' said many of us. 

At any rate, Holed (as he was named by his friends - ' He who has a hole drilled in his heart is known as Holed') was completely and incurably romantic and had found succor in Hindi romantic poetry. He would get up and stand facing in the direction of his beloved's head and read out the lines he had 'trouble' understanding . Mrs. Verma would explain and Holed would ask pertinent questions still standing that way. The answers to those questions from the right quarters could have very well made his life complete. But all that looked back at him was the head of the beloved bent over her books.

Holed was the star student in Hindi but his closest buddy was always close to flunking. And once he really did. Holed stood up in class and asked Mrs. Verma. 'Ma'am, would it matter much if you took away two marks from me and gave them away to him. I would not feel the loss, but it would make all the difference to this poor guy.' The whole class waited in silence to hear the verdict on such an outrageous proposition. The buddy had the look of a death row criminal about to get an eleventh hour reprieve. He could hardly believe his ears, lesser still his luck. Holed kept his score intact and his friend was give grace marks. Holed became quite a hero.

Hindi had finally ceased to be that dreadful thing that I avoided at any cost. I enjoyed reading the short stories and the poetry. Mrs. Verma was never critical of my mistakes and often complimented me on my handling of themes in compositions. I had finally ceased to be a pariah in the Hindi world. My spoken language was not too bad and I could actually joke with a friend in Hindi. My mother was more confident than she had ever been before on the day of the final exams. I did not do too badly. And finally it was indeed the last time with the subject that had been my bane for ten years. I had lived through the thick and thin of it and it was really goodbye now. I never got a chance to read any of the poets and the novelists that I had come to love thanks to Mrs. Verma, but I can still quote a few lines from 'Madhushala' and it's a pleasure to remember. 

What a long journey it has been !


More by :  Gargi Chaudhuri

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