Josna Rege

109. Hindi Lessons

In 1960s, 1990s, Childhood, Education, India, Stories on May 6, 2011 at 3:06 am

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When my family left India for Greece in 1960 I was six and a half, and we had just started learning a second language in school. By the time we returned I was nine and a half and my peers at school in India had not only been studying a second language for some time but had started a third. Since I was enrolling in an English-medium school in West Bengal, according to India’s Three Language Formula (TLF) the second language would be Hindi, the national language, and the third, Bengali, the official language of the state. Upon entering St. Agnes Convent School in Kharagpur I had to take examinations in both languages; to my shame, my Hindi score was a resounding zero (a big laddu) and my Bengali score, for some inexplicable reason, a whopping six percent. Fortunately I was not very far behind my classmates in Bengali (at least those whose mother tongue was not Bengali), but catching up on Hindi was another matter.

Because my father is a perfectionist, he refused to teach Hindi to me on the grounds that he might pass on incorrect grammar and usage, even though he could speak Hindi reasonably well (and, of course, it shared a script and much of its vocabulary with his mother tongue of Marathi). So it fell to my English mother, who of necessity was entirely self-taught, to introduce me to the language. Mum made a large alphabet chart and posted it prominently, so that I could learn the characters and recite them aloud daily, memorizing them line by line: first the vowels— a-aa-i-ee-u-oori, etcetera—and then the consonants: ka-kha-ga-gha-nga, cha-chha-ja-jha-nya and so on. Next she labeled every item in the house with a piece of paper proclaiming its Hindi name. And finally she engaged a Hindi tutor to come to the house weekly, after school.

My tutor was a very thin, quiet man who went over some basics of Hindi grammar with me for a few months, until I was more-or-less up to speed with my classmates at school. He didn’t have many pedagogical or even conversational skills and certainly not much creative imagination when it came to teaching a new language to a nine year-old, but he took me through simple drills, such as case signs and verb tenses. He must have taken on extra after-school tuition not out of any special vocation, but out of sheer economic necessity. All I remember about him are his shoes, thin, stiff leather lace-ups that were always polished to a shine and kept in meticulous condition. When I asked him about them once, he told me, to my amazement, that they were several years old. As a slapdash child who scuffed my shoes and stained my clothes on a daily basis, I could not imagine taking such care of something so well, and my rather nondescript tutor rose several notches in my estimation. Even at that age I must have felt sorry for him, because that small detail of his life gave me a glimpse of his pinched existence and made me realize what a struggle it must have been for him to hold on to middle-class respectability.

Our Hindi primers at St. Agnes, the Saral Bhasha (or Simple Language) series, were textbooks produced in the first decade after Independence and, as such, sought to inculcate in us the fundamentals of Indian citizenship, which included lessons in democracy (a story on Abraham Lincoln), in history both ancient and modern (tales from the Indian epics and biographies of Bapu-ji (Mahatma Gandhi) and Chacha Nehru), in cleanliness (a day in the life of an ideal boy), reverence for Mother, home, and the cow, and national pride (stories and poems about flag and country but also in praise of our geography and seasons).

I do not mean to mock or belittle the sentiments in our Hindi textbooks even though I look back at them now in recognition of the dominant ideology embedded in them; at that time some of the old British textbooks still lingered, and the newly independent nation was trying to produce home-grown texts to replace the paeans to daffodils, apples, snow, and other, more alienating elements of a foreign culture and value-system that had been imposed upon Indians through colonial education. The new nationalist ideals were duly inculcated, but neither the readings nor the pedagogy succeeded in awakening in me a love of the language itself.

At Mount Hermon our Hindi teacher was obviously a master of the language but seemed to resent having to teach it to us. I couldn’t understand his contempt until much later, when I was able to look back and gain some insight into his predicament. In post-Independence India, the Urdu and Persian words were expunged from Hindustani, reducing it to modern Hindi, a language created by politicians and used by bureaucrats, but not the living, spoken language of real people or the rich language of poetry, and not even the lyrics of Hindi film songs, that were almost all in Urdu, the language of love. It must have been Hindustani or Urdu that our teacher really loved, hence, I would guess, his disgust at the ungraceful prose that comprised most of our reading material and his frustration at our daily massacre of the language. As I recall, he became animated only when he taught us a short story by Premchand, who was the one Hindi writer on our syllabus for whom he seemed to have any respect. I’m afraid that I didn’t learn very much in his class and did barely mediocre work, excelling only in dictation, and then only because Hindi is a perfectly phonetic language and our teacher had perfect pronunciation.

As an adult I have sought to make up for my unsatisfactory Hindi lessons in childhood, lessons that left me with a crude approximation of the language that equips me, only a little better than my mother before me, to give directions to a rickshaw-wala or shop for goods in the market. I have studied Sanskrit at university in the U.S., bought Hindi dictionaries and comic books whenever I go back to India, and follow the BBC news headlines in Hindi on Twitter. However, because, with only one exception, the Indian side of my family lives in Maharashtra and speaks Marathi with great pride and proficiency (as well as fluent English), I have little opportunity or incentive to learn the national language over a regional one. In the 1990s I taught Nikhil the Devanagari script and attempted to find Hindi lessons for him in Amherst, but in vain. During our all-too-short stay in India in his childhood, when we divided our time between Delhi and Maharashtra, he had time to learn only a smattering of Hindi and Marathi words and phrases (but he did master Indian English, which I came to recognize and respect as a language all its own).

It occurs to me that my own unsatisfactory experience is comparable to the nation’s  experience with Hindi since Independence, during which time it has not succeeded in making it a truly national language, let alone in phasing out English, which remains the language of higher education and the law after nearly sixty-five years; if anything, a mastery of English has grown even more essential, with the rise of English as the dominant language of the Internet. But Hindi—and I mean official Hindi, not the living language as it is spoken in the regions where it is a mother tongue—is still the poor relation, the clunky currency of officialdom without either elegance or power. Perhaps it will remain so until it embraces its mongrel heritage and reclaims the beauty and riches of its multiple roots. But nonetheless I am grateful for the Hindi lessons I received in my youth, for without them I would be even further cut off from the culture and sensibilities of a country which will always remain a part of me. 

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  1. I always learn such interesting things from your blog. I had no idea of the history of Hindi and its wanna-be but bastardized status. The descriptions of your textbook and teachers are fascinating and remind me of learning Hungarian. My textbook was from the late 1950s or early ’60s, when Hungary was firmly entrenched in the Communist Eastern Bloc, yet all was still new. My textbook had an English businessman or politico, I forget which, visiting his Hungarian counterpart, who patiently explained to him all the wonders of modernity, efficiency, antimaterialism, and anticapitalism — as you point out, just a mirror of our own textbooks. I wish I’d held on to this one. I tossed it during a book purge, when I finally admitted that I am not going to perfect my weak grasp of Russian or Hungarian on my own. There’s a Russian text I wish I’d kept, too, partly because it was by far the clearest and best-organized explication of Russian grammar and partly because it translated such gems as, “Thou hast fluff on thy snout.” It took a lot of self-talk to convince myself to get rid of that one, and here I am six years later, mourning the decision!

    But back to your story. What a fascinating mix of languages and the entanglements of motives, politics, family relations, etc., that result from a multilingual state. Despite its chauvinism (and worse), I can see the benefits of English-only in this country. All we need is another language to split us further apart. Or maybe we just are too big to govern.

    • That Russian text sounds priceless, Sarah! I’ll have to ask my friend Jude, who is a Russian teacher, if she knows “Thou hast fluff on thy snout” in the original.

      About multilingual vs. monolingual societies: while India has certainly had its struggles trying to institute a national language, I must say that most of my Indian relatives speak several languages pretty fluently. The children of one of my cousins spoke Hindi with their friends, English at school, Marathi with their father, and Konkani with their mother, switching back and forth with absolutely no trouble. And it’s similar in many Europe countries, isn’t it, where people learn their national language as well as, say, English, French, and German. I agree with you that language becomes a point of contention in multi-cultural societies like India and the United States, and that a shared language can help bind disparate groups of people together. But still I wish that more Americans knew more than one language.

  2. Ah…but that’s the point. Hindi is not the only national language of India; Hindi along with English and 25 others. Hindi and English are the official languages as mandated by the centre for purposes of communication with the states. Trying to force people into accepting Hindi as the national language has seriously backfired and is now widely regarded as a failed experiment.

  3. I wish Americans knew more than one language, too. (I also wish more of us could handle English better.) I don’t know why we still wait until high school to learn foreign languages, when it’s long been known that it’s best to start as young as possible. Some schools are better now, starting in 3rd or 4th grade, which I still think is a bit late, but a great improvement on grade 9!

    • Yes. Even in Amherst which, while Nikhil was in school, offered 8 (!) languages starting in middle and high school, had nothing at the elementary level. Crazy.

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