When I look back now, at my arduous struggle with the national language, I must admit that I still have a long way to go. When in school my understanding of its vocabulary and grammar was so poor that my Hindi teacher labeled me an “Angrezi (Englishman)” and then washed her hands off me. With its complex rules on gender the language never ceased to seem alien to me. Thus each time an occasion rose for me to speak in Hindi I would hesitate before muttering my question or answer undertone. I did not want to come across as rude or just plain retarded.
And then I ended up spending two years in the dusty badlands of Uttar Pradesh and I no longer had any place to hide. I found it hard to fit in with my peers. It didn’t matter that they conversed in English with me. Without Hindi, I could never hope to follow the intricacies of a conversation or understand a joke. Swear words made no sense to me and when insulted I could only smile and nod enthusiastically in response.
It was impossible to talk to the dhobi in English and sign language was prone to misinterpretation. When my pants went missing, I summoned him to my room. I then pointed somewhere towards his zip area, widened my eyes and made vigorous questioning movements with my hands. He left and never returned after that. Looking back I realize he may have misunderstood my intentions.
Even when I did try Hindi my friends would respond with an “Oh! You have a typical Southie accent! What Mr.Rajnikanth? If I did try to neutralize my natural accent they would make a face and tell me I sounded contrived and artificial. There was no way I could please them. When Om Shanti Om released I was tormented in every corner of the campus with jeers like “Bad Cat!” or “Naughty Cat!” As much as I tried to defend Tamil cinema, my valiant protests resulted in no improvement of perception.
I continued to struggle with similar sounding words like Chaathi and Chathri and Utharna and Uthaarna. When it rained, I unwittingly almost asked my classmate if I could borrow his chest and once while traveling in a local bus I asked the gentleman sitting next to me if had to take my clothes off in the next stop.
Over a period of time I gradually became more comfortable with the language. I found it easier to participate in conversations and could frown menacingly when insulted. When I went to Bangalore for a vacation, it hurt me physically to listen to my sister converse with the security guard in Hindi.
With the exception of Jodha Akbar, I now found it possible to follow the dialogues of all Bollywood movies. I began singing Hindi songs and even understood the lyrics. By the end of my two years at IMT, I could even appreciate the occasional shaayiri.
I still struggle with numbers though. I can’t count beyond twenty and it makes life difficult on the street. Variations in accent are still a bit of a problem. For the life of me I cannot follow a Bihari accent.
But I am no longer an Angrezi :-)