Opinion | Off the Cuff

Hindi lessons, the pain and the politics

Communicating in India is a challenge

  • Victor Mallet
  • Published: 17:05 February 24, 2013
  • Gulf News

Who will marry the lovely Sangeeta? Will it be the boss’s son? What role will Chotu, the pathetically timid office peon, play? Does Pratap, the lodger from London who is mournfully contemplating the new fan in his clean room in Delhi, have any chance of wooing Sangeeta?

Will the soap opera end with India’s urban stereotypes singing Bollywood songs in celebration of a future wedding? And will Pratap’s Hindi studies be advanced enough by then for him to know the five kinds of imperative, from informal to super-polite, and an assortment of inflected verb endings?

Those of you who have gone before me will feel my pain. Yes, I am trying to learn Hindi, with the help of my patient teacher, Rachayta, and the Teach Yourself guide by Rupert Snell and Simon Weightman, which has the kind of ghastly totemic status among students that Kennedy’s Latin Primer had at certain British schools in the 1960s.

Why bother? I have been told by members of Delhi’s small but powerful anglophone elite that there is no point in joining the world’s 500 million Hindi speakers because everyone who matters in India speaks English anyway.

Sadly for me — and for India’s ambitions to be a global power in everything from space technology to call centres — this is not true at all.

Only the other night, I might have missed a scoop when I received two urgent calls at the office from a Hindi speaker who spoke no English. I have yet to reach chapter six of Snell and Weightman, and the caller had no interest in Sangeeta’s marital status or the cleanliness of Pratap’s room. Mutual incomprehension was our common language.

Earlier in the day, I called the Delhi office of a big insurance company to inquire about a policy, but the resident English speaker was out. And on a recent short trip to Assam in the far northeast, only two of the two dozen people I interviewed (a politician and a professor) spoke English. Assamese and Bengali are the main languages there, but basic Hindi is the lingua franca. Thankfully I had an interpreter.

Even those Indians who do speak perfect English, and whose native tongue is something other than Hindi, have an alarming habit of breaking into Hindi at crucial moments in their press conferences or public speeches.

Politics is the reason. Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat and a leading light in the opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, annoyed local supporters after he set his sights on becoming prime minister. Why? He started making speeches not in Gujarati but in Hindi for the benefit of television news channels and India’s mass of Hindi speaking voters.

Finance Minister P. Chidambaram comes from the southern state of Tamil Nadu and speaks impeccably clear English. But last year he made what is thought to be his first public speech entirely in Hindi, fuelling speculation that he too wants to be prime minister of the world’s largest democracy.

So far I have learnt the Devanagari script and a lot of grammar, but I can hardly speak a coherent sentence. I feel embarrassed when I think of my Chinese-speaking colleagues in Beijing, whose fluency is such that I have heard them delicately correct the translations of ministerial interpreters.

Even a little, however, is better than nothing. I am starting to work out, from the signs painted on the backs of their vehicles, which deities are worshipped by Delhi’s autorickshaw drivers.

Occasionally there are flashes of light when nouns from Arabic (kitaab, a book) or Hindi verbs that found their way into old-fashioned English slang (“Dekho!” or “Look!”) relieve the relentless obscurity of my studies.

Hobson-Jobson, the delightfully rambling 19th century Anglo-Indian glossary, and Hanklyn-Janklin, its modern successor, have found their way to my bedside table. Learning a language such as Hindi tells you a lot about culture, relations between the sexes and how people at one level of society treat those of another — and how all these things can change over time.

Above all, though, learning Hindi is fun. My teacher says it is obvious that Kamala is having an affair with her neighbour. I only wish that Pratap would stop speaking to his mother in London about the furniture in his room — “There’s a new rug on the floor too!” — and make an attempt to impress Sangeeta. I fear the worst in chapter six.

— Financial Times

Gulf News
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