Hindi — My love hate relationship

A language that was the source of my childhood trauma and a secret weapon as an adult.

I’m seeing two distinct cadre on Social Media — one asking for making Hindi a compulsory part of curriculum pan India, the other refusing to learn or speak the language. I’ve been at the center of this dichotomy and I wish for neither of the two sides to win. Here’s a small story of me growing up with Hindi.

I was born in Srirangam, Tamil Nadu and grew up in Faizabad (UP), Mumbai (Maharashtra), Vadodara (Gujarat) and Hyderabad (Telangana). Each state speaks a different language.

My family doesnt speak Hindi. My parents were born and brought up in Tamil Nadu. So as my dad was getting transferred from city to city in the North, they were learning Hindi along with me and my brother. The first language I learnt was, ofcourse, Tamil. Even though we lived in UP, the Hindi mainland, for the first 5 years of my life, I barely picked up any worthwhile communication skills there. My brother being a few years elder started getting good at the language here.

When we moved to Mumbai, there is one thing that struck me profoundly. It is that in UP we were the odd one out. I didn’t realize it back there. But in Mumbai, I could see that there was a concoction of different cultures. Every home looked different, spoke a different language, ate a different food. In UP, it was just my-family and not-my-family. All the not-my-family seemed to be eerily similar. You’d know what to expect in lunch, you’d know how to pay respect to the elders and you’d know what tongue they’d speak. In Mumbai, when the kids got together to play, we didn’t speak my-family-tongue nor did we speak not-my-family-tongue. We spoke English. It felt strange. I had friends from Goa, Kerala, Maharashtra and Bengal. We just didn’t have a common language to speak. I don’t know who decided or why it was decided that we will speak in English. We 5 six year olds just hanging out and speaking English. Over time, I picked up the language and started becoming comfortable. It also helped that I studied in an English medium school, where teachers really spoke and taught in English. So, for a while, English was my go to language. Slowly English started penetrating my family. We started using English in Tamil and vice-versa. Eventually after a few years, we were speaking English with specks of Tamil in it. Up until middle school, I spoke only Tamil and English. In class 5, when I was about 9 or 10 years old is when I was introduced to a brand new language. I was so proud to be grown up that I will also, like my elder brother, study two languages. The first few months, we learnt the Hindi alphabet. Easy-peasy.

About 3 months in, my dad got transferred to Vadodara in Gujarat. We moved. I joined my new school in the middle of the term. Two days before the semester exam. I thought I wouldn’t be required to write an exam, but never the less I found myself in the examination hall that week. I managed to do OK on my Maths, Science and English exams. But Hindi was a total disaster. Others in the class have been studying Hindi for the last five years, as against my five weeks. I scored 3 marks out of 100. I could barely read what the questions said. I was reading them aloud because I hadn’t yet learnt to read silently. I was now asked to write 200 word long prose on ambition of my life using a 20 word vocabulary. My parents and my class teacher were fairly supportive. They said it’s OK because I’ve been here only for two days. I was too young to follow that line of argument. Infact, I don’t think I even understood fully how bad that score was. But what I did understand was class mates making fun of me. I was, in Mumbai, a bright student. A week later, here I am being classified as a failure. I didn’t know how to cope with it. It shattered me. As we would see in the rest of this story, this is something that’d keep me tied down for the next five years. It broke the confidence I had just built in Mumbai.

Vadodara was again a cultural shock. It was again a situation of my-family and not-my-family. Every Gujarati family seemed to be very similar to one another. But this time there was something else that was a major source of concern. I studied at an English Medium School, but my teachers spoke in Hindi! My social science teacher would read a paragraph in English and her teaching would be limited to translating it into Hindi. It just didn’t make any sense at all to me. I was then introduced to a new language — Sanskrit, as a part of the curriculum. For some reason, it was accepted that the medium of instruction for this subject would be Hindi! I learnt this the hard way. As one of the first homework in the course, we were asked to translate 5 Sankrit sentences. With great difficulty, I managed to do the home work. That day I was called to the teachers cabin and scolded. For the first few minutes I just didn’t understand why I was being scolded. Then it dawned on me that I had translated the sentences to English — but the teacher expected me to translate them to Hindi. A Sanskrit class was like studying a foreign language being taught in another foreign language. In one of the examinations I didn’t understand the question and had to call for my teacher to tell me what she wanted me to do in that question. The instructions were in Hindi.

So here’s where I stood. 6 subjects — 2 subjects (Hindi and Sanskrit) that I couldn’t understand, 2 subjects (social science & maths) being taught in Hindi and 2 subjects (science and English) that would give me some solace. This demolished my confidence. I gave up on being able to score well on exams, let alone securing a high rank. I’d score OK on science, math and English. But in aggregate, with regularly failing in Hindi and Sanskrit, would be well below average performance in the class. I turned into the kid that’d not speak much.

All my friends outside of school spoke Gujarati while we played cricket. But luckily a one of them was considerate enough to talk to me in Hindi and had the patience to use English when I was lost. I made thick friends with him. I am still close. Having a friend like that changed my trajectory. For once, I was talking to someone who would speak what I’d understand. I hung on. Slowly I started picking up Hindi. A couple of kids joined our neighbourhood who didn’t speak Gujarati, but Hindi. So, gradually Hindi became prevalent on the cricket fields. And I started speaking Hindi fluently.

I spoke enough Hindi to play with my friends and them not making fun of me any more — atleast not as much. It was liberating.

In class 10, I scored my high in the board examinations in Hindi. A whooping 54 out of 100. This was the turning point in my life. Come grade 11, I was no longer to study Hindi and Sanskrit. I would study Math, Physics, Chemistry, Computers and English. Most of the teachers still taught in Hindi. But by this time I was OK to understand colloquially what they meant. I could speak fluently too. This was my time of redemption. Once again, after many years, I was among the brighter students. I did well in senior school.

As I entered college in Hyderabad, there were three groups that formed. Those who spoke Hindi, those who spoke Telugu and those who spoke neither. Those who spoke neither were about a dozen in a batch of 200. A small group. For the first time I was grateful that I was exposed to Hindi. I got my way into the Hindi speaking majority. I still spoke worse Hindi, I’d still be the center of lot of language jokes, but I’d be a part of the conversations! Having lived in a hostel, my Hindi continued to improve because I was now speaking that language almost 100% of my time. I started getting fluent and I started improving my accent.

When I entered my professional life, people would often read my obviously Tamil name and decide to speak in English, to be considerate. Many times broken English. I’d then pull out my magic trick and reply them back in fluent Hindi. It’d make their day. It gives me immense satisfaction to put that smile on the other person. When that other person is speaking in broken English and is obviously struggling, I sympathize — I know how hard it could have been to learn a language that people around you are not speaking. Me relieving them of the pressure to talk in English, and switch back to their most comfortable language makes for a great conversation and lasting relationships. I now have great friends who speak a variety of languages as their first tongue. Hindi taught me to be considerate towards each one’s back story.