Hindi Hain Hum: Account of a Vibhashi's Romance with the National Language
I should have been writing this essay in Hindi. Not just this essay, but several others—and perhaps, poems, stories, book reviews, too. Many years ago, in a fit of joyous exuberance, I actually wrote several pages of my daily journal in Hindi. It happened after the language suddenly sprung to life in my inner being
I was doing a Pre-University Course at the Madras Christian College. My second language option was Hindi. We had two teachers, whose names, unfortunately elude me just now. But I remember them very well. The older of the two was a white-haired man, with two protruding teeth. He was a Tamil brahmin, probably an Aiyar, who had been closely associated with the Dakshin Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha. He spoke Hindi with a South Indian accent. He wore only Khadi clothes. One’s teachers make often make unwitting prophecies in the passing which, in an uncanny manner, actually come true in most unexpected ways years later. It was this Hindi professor who said that I too would start wearing Khadi one day.
Fond of literature as I was, I began to warm up to the Hindi course that we were taught. Because the board was Madras Pre-University, I thought the Hindi syllabus was rather easy. It consisted of an anthology of poetry, some short stories, and an abridged version of Premchand’s Godan. Once I got interested in a subject, I was usually considered a conscientious and lively student. Several teachers, therefore, took a liking to me or, at any rate, gave me some extra attention. Our senior Hindi teacher was no exception. Once while walking with him after class, I made so bold as to ask him, “Sir, kya mein aap ko ek sawaal pooch sakta hoon?” He said, “Haan, avashya!” I asked him about his sartorial preference for Khadi. “Kya tum bhi ise apnana chahte hon?” I was not sure what to say. “Jee nahin, Sir, dar asal mujhe yeh kya hain pata nahin hain, magar dikhene me zaroor alagh lag ta hain.” “Han, ise Khadi ya khaddar kehten hain. Yeh hum sab ke liye Gandhiji ki bhent hain. Ek din tum bhi yehi pehan ne lago ge.” I must have been sixteen years of age then. I certainly knew very little about Khadi or the philosophy behind it. It was our senior Hindi teacher who introduced me to it. And he was right in predicting that I would start wearing it one day. That’s a different story, but the fact that Khadi came to me with Hindi is important in this narrative of how a non-Hindi speaking person came to love our national language.
Let me come back to my Pre-University Hindi course. It was during this course that Hindi began actually to resonate in my consciousness like never before. I had of course done ten years of Hindi as a second language through my junior and senior school years. But Hindi as a second language in an ICSE curriculum of an Anglo-Indian school was neither very exciting nor particularly demanding. The Hindi teachers in my school were often objects of curiosity or humour, seldom of awe or reverence.
We loved our Hindi classes for entirely different reasons. For instance, one of our teachers, Mr. Aziz, had the most beautiful handwriting. He hardly taught us any Hindi or for that matter anything else, but students often went to him to get their names inscribed in his elegant, flowery calligraphy in their notebooks or textbooks. That was one reason he was so popular among the students. I learned later that Mr. Aziz had never been trained to be a Hindi teacher. Hindi had perhaps fallen to his lot after he had failed at everything else. Easy going, even lazy by temperament, this soft option came as a saving grace for his career as a school teacher.
Another teacher that we had, Mrs. R, also interested us for other reasons. In a boys’ school such as ours, any reasonably good looking lady teacher not only became an instant favourite, but also the focus of gossip. Mrs. R was rumoured to be close to our sports teacher, Mr. S. Not knowing much about adult relationships, we nevertheless took special interest in the private life of Mrs. R. and paid less attention to what she taught us.
The only Hindi teacher who made definite impact on me in school was Mr. Seshadri. He was a balding, silver-haired, Kannada Brahmin, who also spoke very good English. He spent several months in our 9th standard teaching us declension. When I told him, “But, Sir, we know all this intuitively,” he replied, “You don’t understand; this will help you later when you study Sanskrit.” Another prophecy, I must confess, that has been fulfilled at least partially. Though I remember the different cases—nominative, accusative, instrumental, dative, ablative, genative, locative, vocative—I must admit that I haven’t made much progress with Sanskrit despite repeated attempts over several years. At any rate, Mr. Seshadri’s insistence on grammar and declension made him unpopular among most of my classmates. Only I, somehow, enjoyed even the lessons in grammar.
Mr. Seshadri was a bachelor. None of us knew much about the circumstances of his life. He had two good suits which he wore alternately. His English, too, was pretty good. I never understood what made him take to teaching Hindi. Perhaps, he had an M.A. in Hindi. He didn’t teach us much literature, but I do remember some conversations that I had with him. Once, when he wore a new suit, I told him, “Sir, you are looking regal.” I thought he would take it as a compliment, but instead he said with unexpected sharpness, drawing himself back, lifting his head and shoulders high, “I’ll look regal even in rags.” Later, I learned that the lack of adequate financial support during the crucial years of his education had probably denied him his rightful place in the world, forcing him to earn a living teaching Hindi to anglicized school brats instead.
One thing that Mr. Seshadri did teach us, however, was that Hindi was not one language, but the name for a number of related tongues spoken all over India. There was the standard Hindi, of course, that we were expected to learn, but even this language wasn’t very old nor without its internal variances and tensions. This realization came after I took a bet with my only competitor in the Hindi class about a word that I’d heard Dharmendra use in a Hindi movie. The word, I think was, khali-pili. When I had used it, my friend said, “That’s not Hindi.” “Bet?” I challenged him. We went to Mr. Seshadri to decide who won. Our teacher said, “Both of you are right. That word is a part of bumbaiya Hindi…” “Bubaiya? What’s that, Sir?” I interrupted. “Well, there are all these dialects of Hindi. Each region speaks it it’s own way. So, I suppose, khali-pili is acceptable in bumbaiya but not in shudh Hindi.”
Once in a while, I still dream of Mr. Seshadri. One dream that I have goes as follows. I have been absent from class for several months. Mr. Seshadri expects me to do well in some exam. The prescribed book is a long novel, perhaps by Premchand. I come to class with a great sense of anxiety and apprehension. I don’t know how to explain to him that I haven’t read the book yet. I feel grossly ashamed and inadequate to have let Mr. Seshadri down after he’s reposed his faith in me. I usually wake up that that point. Perhaps, it’s my inner sense of guilt at not having done more with/in Hindi that chastises me in this manner from time to time.
One more anecdote about Mr. Seshadri. When all of us were leaving school, we got our teachers to sign our diaries and also give us little messages to carry with us into the great, wide world. I was particularly keen to get the autographs of all my teachers. Mr. Aziz, Mr. Shankar, Mr. Jaipaul, Mr. Paulraj, Mrs. Robinson, Mr. Lobo, Mr. Athiyal, Mr. Ninan, our Principal, Mr. A. T. Balraj, and of many other teachers—the faces of all these flash in my mind as I recall that fateful day of leave-taking. I still remember what Mr. Seshadri wrote in my diary: Zindagi zinda dili ka naam hai; murda dil khaakh reh jate hain. The fire in his eyes when he looked at me after writing that message is unforgettable.
Mr. Seshadri’s extracurricular lesson in the dialects of Hindi is very important for my own narrative. For the first time, it explained to me why the Hindi that I had learned was so different from what was taught in school. Nowhere was this more evident than in the clandestine conversations that I had with my Muslim friends in school during the recess. We thought we were speaking Hindi, but it was certainly not the Hindi that we were learning in class. No wonder Hasan Moosa, Suhail Yousuf, Saud Ahmed and my other Muslim friends all did very poorly in Hindi. Of course, they weren’t very studious either, but the language, its grammar, syntax, even vocabulary were not really alien to them. Only the language they spoke had a totally different feel and flavour to it.
It was this language that I learned by the name of Hindi. Interestingly, Hindi was not something that I grew up knowing. I was born in Gujarat in a Maharashtrian family. The two languages I imbibed almost with my mother’s milk were Marathi, my mother-tongue, and Gujarati. The latter I learned outside my house. The neighbours and everyone else in the street spoke it. Learning it was no effort, but I still remember my Chitra and Meena, the daughters of our upstairs neighbours, teaching me the numbers, from one to 100 very painstakingly. My Gujarati, at all events, was so authentic that no one could tell I was a Maharashtrian. The surprise, even alarm, expressed by some of the natives when they heard that I was not a Gujarati was always both amusing and annoying. Later, when we moved out of Gujarat, I lost that native-like fluency and local accent. My Gujarati is still pretty good, but it’s bookish and artificial, not the living language in which I frolicked as a child.
The point is that I never learned for the first five and a half years of my life, which were spent in Baroda. Ironically, I learned a language akin to Hindi when we moved to Bangalore, in the heart of South India. I learned the language, moreover, from drivers and watchmen. They all thought of us as North Indians and assumed that we knew Hindi. The language they taught me was intimate, sociable, warm, vital, quick, and expressive. “Tum ko Hindi nai aata, saam?” I remember being asked. I said, “Na. Sirf thoda thoda aata.” I told them I knew only Marathi and Gujarati. My first Hindi teachers said, “Koi baat nahin, hum sikhata.” And so my lessons started.
“Kab aye tum?”
“Kay hona tumna?”
“Kuch bhi nahin. Jao ji, humna chhod dalo.”
“Tum kidhar rehte?
“Idhar-ich. Isi colony mein. Tumna malum nahin?”
This is the sort of Hindi we spoke. You may call it Dakhni or Dakhni Urdu, but it’s spoken in large parts of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and even in Tamil Nadu. Again, there a local variations. Hyderabadi is a distinct and much more powerful form than Karnataki. The large Muslim, Rajput, and other North Indian populations in Bangalore and Mysore, especially those settled there for over 200 years, speak this language.
When we grew up, we were rather ashamed of it. We thought that only the “real” North Indians, those who lived in U.P or Delhi knew proper Hindi. Our language was something we rarely used in public. It was the patios spoken with subordinates who worked in the company. For several years, while I was growing up in Bangalore, I spoke this kind of Hindi. It was a language in which “mein” and “aap” were rarely used; its was only “hum” and “tum.” Many years later, a friend from Hyderabad told me that others, especially elders and betters, needed to be addressed as “aap.”
The verbs in this language were very graphic and vivid: dhakal dalo—push it away; bhirka do—fling it; chhod dalo—leave it; ghatt pakdo—hold it tightly; daud lo—run; and so on. “Ch” as an intensifier was added to everything we said: “Uttach—that’s all; wo ayach nahin—he didn’t come at all; bolech nahin—didn’t say at all; and so on. It was also a language full of swear words, besides the usual ma-bahen ki gaaliyan, which I won’t translate: chinnal ke; laude ke baal; gaandu; chutiya; etc.
“Unhe kidhar gaya so?”
“Kya ki, maloom nahin. Bole ke gaya nahin unhe. Sala, chinnal ka.”
“Wo sab humna sunna nahin. Tumech karna padenga.”
“Kaya saab, aisa bolte tum. Usiko aata na, humna kyon tum bejaar karte?”
“Aisa kya, ulte zaban ladate kya tume. Bahut kirkire tumhari sun liya. Ab bus ho gaya. Chup chaap aate ki nahin, bolo.”
“Achha saab, aate hum. Tum kya yaad karenge.”
I typical conversation would go like this. “So” would be liberally sprinkled all over. Aate so, jaate so, ky so, bolo so, and so on.
Later, when I lived in Hyderabad, the language came back to me, but it was not what I had learned as a child in the suburbs of Bangalore, from native speakers and users of Karnataki or Bangalori. Though the latter was the mother tongue of none of us, we all spoke it, whether we were Gujaratis, Maharashtrians, Telugus, Tamils, Kannadigas, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, North Indians, South Indians, officers or watchmen.
Mr. Seshadri gave this beautiful language some semblance of legitimacy in my eyes. Later, I realized that Hindi or Hindavi or Urdu or Dakhini had a great flowering in the South much before it reached it high level of sophistication in Delhi, Agra, and Lucknow. In was in the Deccan that this language found state patronage in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. Golconda, Bijapur, Bidar, Gulbarga, the breakaway Sultanates of the Deccan and, later, Mysore under Hyder Ali and Tipu, patronized this language. The first ruler and founder of Hyderabad, Quli Qutub Shah, composed love lyrics in it. The language that I had learned from drivers, watchmen, and malis was, after all, a noble tongue.
Later, when I came to St. Stephen’s College to do my B.A. (Hons.) in English, I thought I would at last get a native speaker of Hindi as a teacher. That is indeed what I thought was the case when I took classes with Dr. Vedagnya Arya. I enjoyed those classes, though not as much as I had the Pre-University course at Madras. The only Hindi poetry that I had read till then was at Madras. Who can forget the rousing resonance of the lines of Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’s poem on Rani Laxmibai: “Khub ladi mardani thi woh jhansi wali rani.” I also read Suryakant Tripathi “Nirala,” Jaishankar Prasad, Maithilisharan Gupt, and Mahadevi Verma for the first time. In Delhi, however, the emphasis seemed to be on prose. There was an awful essay, a sort of travel piece, by Jawaharlal Nehru which was prescribed. It was probably the only thing he ever wrote in English. I remember a word from it , khushk—dry—Nehru was saying that mausam khushk tha—or something to that effect. Another essay that I remember was called “Mere Napitacharya.” It was a humorous piece on the author’s barber. In today’s more politically correct times, the undertone of class superiority would be sure to attract criticism. I also read famous and not so famous short stories by Premchand, Upendranath Ashk, Mohan Rakesh, and so on. “Punch Parmeshwar,” “Budhi Kaki,” “Dawat ki Adawat,” are some of the titles that stick in my mind.
Dr. Arya was an eloquent and inspired teacher. He also brought in a researcher’s dimension to the classroom, which had been missing in my earlier Hindi classes. I got to know his son, Aditya, rather well. Aditya and I used to stay up nights, with flaskfuls of coffee, studying before the exam. Of course, we chatted more and studied less. It was only then, in my third year, after I had cleared the Hindi subsidiaries that I found out the Dr. Arya was actually a Telugu. He had left home at an early age, joined the Arya Samaj, studied to become a PhD and a lecturer in Hindi. So, even in Delhi, I was taught Hindi by a vibhashi like myself.
In this longish, autobiographical narrative what I’ve tried to establish is the simple fact that I am a non-native speaker of Hindi who was taught the language and its literature by other non-native speakers. I learned Hindi in the South, in Bangalore; all my teachers in school and college were non-native speakers of Hindi; that is, throughout my education, I was taught Hindi by Kannada, Tamil, Malayali, and Telugu speakers. It is they who taught me not only how to speak, read, and write in Hindi, but awakened in me a love for the language.
The language, as I have hinted earlier, came to symbolize in my mind, not just the unity and integrity of India, as the cliché goes, but something beyond that—a certain mystique, a spirit of belonging and oneness with the inner springs of the language. That was how, one day, the door of Hindi opened in my consciousness and out poured from it cascades of beautiful words, like a long unbroken poem, internally consistent and organized according to the logic of the imagination. Hindi became my own and I could say with quiet pride, Hindi hain hum.
I wrote only one poem in Hindi. It went somewhat like this:
Mujhe pata hain us manzil ka thikana
jahan hum sub ko milega woh jis ki hai hamen talash.
Raste mein a nadi hogi, jis ko par karna aasan nahin.
Baadh me hame mahinon kinare par intezaar karna hoga.
Aage, a jangal bhi milega, jis me unmat janwaron ke karkash garjana
sun kar dil kaamp uthega. Magar hausla mut haarna, mitron,
mujeh pata hain us manzil ka thikana.
I have recapitulated just one of the paragraphs of the poem. I am sure it has lost some of its initial charge in this rewriting; I don’t have access to the original at this moment. Yet, the idea should be clear—there will obviously be other symbolic and real obstacles on the way. Perhaps, the poem will end on a note of uncertainty, even futility. In a poem, language is everything; I’m not sure I had managed to pull off the verbal coup that every half-way decent poem must.
Having settled down in Delhi, my contact with Hindi has grown. I speak in Hindi not just to most people I encounter on a day to day basis, but also to several friends and colleagues. I miss the sound of Hindi when I go South or abroad. I find that I tend quite naturally to switch to Hindi in everyday conversations, without which a sense of distance and formality remains in any social intercourse. Having English as a common language is not longer sufficient; without Hindi, the motor of conversation doesn’t hum. My intellectual contact with Hindi has also increased, though not as much as I have wanted it to. Yet, I can easily understand and even participate in current debates in the world of Hindi letters and ideas. In brief, I am no stranger to the continent of Hindi.
That is why it saddens me sometimes that Hindi speakers themselves have not done enough to raise the status and reach of the language. The pundits in charge of the propagation of Hindi have sought to impose an alienating, Brahmannical language on a recalcitrant populace. Hindi cinema, as we all know, has done more for Hindi than all the official language planners. And yet a high level of intellectualization is inevitable for any language if it is to resist being boxed into a subaltern position such as all our Indian languages do vis a vis English.
I think the future of Hindi, in spite of what the Government is doing or not doing, is bright. In my travels across India, I find that it is Hindi which is used as a link language, whether it is in Shillong or Port Blair. Even in Tamil Nadu, strangers have come up to me to speak in Hindi even though I normally would avoid using the language on my own. This has happened to me so often that I am convinced that the image of the Hindi-hating Tamilian is grossly untrue. Yes, there is a politicization of the language issue, but the common people of Tamil Nadu, I feel reasonably sure, love Hindi. Not just that, whether in Chennai or Madurai, in Trichy or Coimbatore, Hindi is spoken by surprisingly large numbers of people. Hindi is also heard in Colombo, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta, not to speak of London, Paris, Moscow, Tokyo, New York, and Toronto. In Pakistan and in Bangladesh large sections of the population understand Hindi. After all, Hindi and Urdu are sister languages. In Nepal, Hindi is widely understood because it is so similar to Nepali. Calcutta has a huge Hindi speaking population. Hindi is also the lingua franca of Mumbai and Hyderabad. So, Hindi is widely spoken and used in all our metros, from Amritsar to Thiruvananthapuram.
Though this essay has been mainly a narrative, it does have an implicit argument. The argument is that Hindi belongs to the vibhashis as mucha as it does to the Hindi-wallah. In the last hundred years, it has been promoted by a whole host of protagonists, from Dayanand Saraswati, Mahatama Gandhi, and Vinoba to Pandurang Shastri Athavale, Satya Sai Baba, and Asaram Bapu. Hindi is not just the language of film songs, but also of bhajans all over India. Non-native speakers have written nearly half of the best literature of Hindi. Not just Ajneya, Ashak, Muktibodh, Sahani,Vaid, Sobti, and so on, but a whole nation of Punjabis, Gujaratis, Maharashtrians, Bengalis, Oriyas, and, indeed people from every corner of the land, have enriched and contributed to the language.
My romance with Hindi has not yet reached either its climax or its culmination. Hindi has become a part of the collective psyche of millions of people like me. What makes us proud is the we may be vibhashis, but we are still desi, as desi in fact as the cycle-rickshaw puller of Kanpur, the sugar farmer of Meerut, the brass worker of Moradabad, or the pan-walla of Benaras. All of us togther make both Hindi and India what they are.