Friday, March 25, 2011

English Mem, Hindi Bolni-Walli

When we first moved to Dehradun I bought groceries at a local shop, occasionally on credit. I was friendly with the shopkeeper, but we didn't know each others' names. One evening while making my purchases, I asked him how much I owed him and he pulled out his little register and leafed through to find my page. Curious to see what he called me, I leaned over and saw that, in his book, I was "English Mem Hindi Bolni Walli".

The English Lady Who Speaks Hindi! A title to treasure.

Learning Hindi is the single most important investment I ever made toward my life in India and one that I consciously enjoy almost every single day. It's hard to explain why being able to speak it is such a pleasure. I don't have complicated exchanges; I don't discuss deep philosophical issues. Political debates almost never happen, nor am I capable of a nuanced discussion on the pros and cons of the Right to Education Act.

Indeed, I think the pleasure comes precisely from the simplicity of the conversations I have, from the fact that almost all of what I talk about is tangible and real. How high a child's fever went last night. The price of cauliflower.  How sparkling that dress is in the sunshine. The way to Sethi Market (left at the gol chakka, phir bilkul straight jana).

Because my Hindi is not as good as most educated people's English, my talk tends to be with poor people, people who are unpretentious, simple and absolutely delighted that they can understand me and that I can understand them. This innate hospitality amazes me. Where I come from, it is expected that immigrants should learn the language. The natives have nothing but scorn for people who live in their country but haven't bothered to master English.

Here it is just the opposite. Here, I am treated with reverence and awe because I can converse. I have mastered a few stock lines for this situation, deprecating remarks about how strange it would be, if, after 30 years in the country, I didn't speak the language. These lines invariably cause laughter and more admiration. I play to the galleries.

Living in India, for a girl who grew up in America, accustomed to a range of comforts as long as your arm, isn't exactly easy. How to explain the joy of being able to discuss the price of onions, the benefits of polyester vs cotton, the value of listening to your mother-in-law versus the pleasure of charting your own path? I can't explain it. I just know that life feels more real in Hindi, that the complications that ensnare me in English are manageable in Hindi and that this English Mem gets a glimpse of pure happiness when speaking in Hindi about what would seem inconsequential and unimportant in her native tongue: bread, water, the kitchen garden, the neighbours' grandchildren. 

Lacking vocabulary and grammar, we pare it down to the essential words, the present tense. No Guru could do it better.


ana @ i made it so said...

so interesting jo. language really can break down those barriers between our differences, at the very basic level... those few words said during those frequent crossing of paths that happens on any day. you made me think that i might take those things for granted. i know i'll look at it differently now.

did you learn the language before you moved there, or while you were there?

Jo Chopra McGowan said...

Thanks, Ana! I learned it here. A two month crash course at a language school in the Himalayas, then thrown into the mean streets of Delhi where I refined my slang. I go on learning new words all the time, so much more consciously than I do in English. It's like a treasure box!