Tongue tied by Hindi

Janice Pariat | Updated on September 13, 2019

An unknowable script: For a lot of us in that classroom, it was a language that appeared out of nowhere   -  ISTOCK.COM

My relationship with the language is — to borrow from Facebook — complicated

About a month ago, I attended a talk at Triveni Kala Sangam by “fontwala” Rajeev Prakash Khare. He’s had a distinguished career as typeface designer and calligrapher specialising in the Devanagari script. In truth, I was there because my partner was involved in a dramatised reading written and organised by Khare’s artist niece, Shubra Prakash. I own up to this because my relationship with Hindi has been, to borrow from Facebook, complicated. It’s a language that sits uneasily on my tongue. So I enter the room at Triveni with some trepidation, feeling I’m all of seven again, back at Loreto Convent, Shillong, and sitting in for my first Hindi class. For a lot of us in that classroom it was a language that appeared out of nowhere. All our lives we’d spoken Khasi and, thanks to a convent school education, English, and now suddenly there was this other — with a script that looked scarily squiggly and alien. So far, growing up in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Hindi was the language, remote and removed, of TV programmes — Chitrahaar and Ramayana, screened once a week. It was a language in a box, literally and otherwise, removed and sealed from us and our daily lives.

I was never any good with Hindi, even though my teacher, the gentle Mrs Hasan, insisted that my grasp of grammar and of vocabulary was stronger than my older sister’s, who was five years senior to me in the same school.

It didn’t matter. The words scared me. They sat on the page irrevocably dead because they did not resonate with any aspect of my lived, real experience. I still have nightmares involving Hindi exams. In my dream I’m ill-prepared, and panicking, certain I’ll “fail”— and it wasn’t much different in real life either. Exam after exam, I sat with a mostly blank answer script, wracking my head over synonyms for sundar and antonyms for darr . I learnt “by heart” how to begin letters so at least I’d be spared the shame of scoring nothing.

Priya Rahul, aasha hai ki aap theek ho.” Hindi, for me, was exercise after exercise in humiliation. Later, when I could still barely construct a sentence, I was expected to write short stories — to think of fictional worlds in a language that itself seemed fictional to me. Who was Kabir? And why were we learning his dohe? I also couldn’t get my head around the idea of gendered nouns, at least not in Hindi, for Khasi too is a gendered language which I spoke, at the time, with ease and fluency. In school, I remember language as hierarchy. “First”, “second”, and “third”, and by the time I was moved to a boarding school in Assam, there was a “fourth”. Because of this geographical shift, my third language, which until then had been Khasi in Shillong, changed to Assamese at the Assam Valley School. It was, unsurprisingly, a colossal linguistic mess.

Khare, fortunately, is a wonderfully engaging speaker. He begins his talk with, “Forty years ago, after I didn’t get into the Calcutta Art School...” He doesn’t know it but his informality puts me at ease. After sharing with us how he became a fontwala, he brings up the Devanagari script on a slide. I gaze at the alphabet that, for so many years, has frightened me, and choked on my tongue. He tells us that the first sound of Devanagari is not ka but the dot or bindu, ang, the sound of Shiva’s damru beating perpetually. Perhaps, I thought, if we’d been taught Hindi differently, through stories, it might’ve stayed with me. Khare brings up another slide — the evolution of Devanagari, how the letters, over centuries, grow from simple dots and lines to softer, more elaborate signs. “Because of material,” he explains. “It’s difficult to carve curving lines on stone, but it can be done easily with ink on leaves, and parchment and paper. When material changes so does script.” I am enamoured in a way I have never been in a Hindi classroom. For a glimmering moment there, a language I have often loathed comes alive.

Now, I suppose, I can rationalise my resentment against Hindi in a way that I couldn’t while I was still in school and terrorised (I can’t think of a more appropriate word) by it.

I can see how the imposition of the language across the country aligns with a certain “nation-building” agenda — even if that meant, sadly, majoritarian cultural tendencies. What deeply saddens me, though, is the cost at which Hindi (or under colonisation, English) has been inflicted upon a classroom. I am no longer fluent in Khasi. In school, I wasn’t taught Khasi songs or poetry — or even if I was, it was under the diminished label of a “third” language. Because Khasi could never be the language that came before English or Hindi. Over the years, it has faltered on my tongue. It is difficult for me now to hear its music. I leave Triveni feeling sorrowful.

I ended up enjoying the talk but some losses, no matter how long ago, are hard to forgive.

(Note: I am leaving out the translations for the Hindi words to underline the thematic concerns of the column — not having access to a language)


Janice Pariat is the author of The Nine-Chambered Heart; @janicepariat

Published on September 13, 2019

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