Part I Learning Hindi in India: The Face of a Global Village

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There are eighteen students currently studying Hindi at the American Institute of Indian Studies in Jaipur, Rajasthan. We come from all over the world. A majority of us are American, while the remaining students hail from an assortment of different countries, like England, Italy, Spain, and Estonia. Having studied Hindi together for the past three and a half months, we have come to know one another intimately. We have become a small global village, an Indian family—obnoxious, caring, and overly interested in one another’s business. Among the many conversations we’ve shared—after school, or at a rooftop restaurant with the fading desert sky—one has included why we converged from our respective corners of the earth to learn an uncommon language:

Hindi.

We were all sitting in room #14 completing our daily assignments that afternoon at our Hindi institute, just like we did every other. The two ceiling fans circled above our heads. The light on the mosquito repellent on the outlet glowed a dull blue, showing that it was on and not working. Students scratched translations of English sentences onto their grammar sheets with hands pressed against their faces in utter boredom. Some clicked through pictures on facebook on their laptops or checked their emails on their iPads. One girl blasted music on speakers from her iPod and bounced her shoulders, pointing her fingers upward into the air with eyes closed in private bliss. Two or three girls hotly debated the feminism articles they’d read the night before. The mosquitoes whined, elicited sudden swaacks against our arms, and mingled our international blood.

I sat at the table at the front of the room, staring down at my Hindi short story with glazed-over eyes. I occasionally penciled in definitions to words, but had trouble absorbing the information—in the same way one can read a paragraph several times before going to bed without remembering a single line. Lethargy often sets in at the end of the day, after four hours of continuous Hindi classes, from 9:00 to 1:00 .In college I had always lamented my inability to focus all of my attention on language study. I resented the other work that claimed a monopoly over my time. In terms of personality, I was also much more likely to procrastinate by reading an interesting theoretical article than I was to memorize vocabulary or mindlessly rewrite grammar constructions.

Now that I was here, I (probably like my peers) longed for the mixed tempo of my college days.

My eyes settled on the other students. My first exposure to India had been through my Catholic high school, Bishop McGuinness. We were reared on tales of Mother Teresa and her call to serve the poorest of the poor. It wasn’t until I took a World Religions class my senior year that I was exposed to different types of stories.

The class was taught by a nun. Her opinions of Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Islam were biased, to say the least.

“I like this idea of monism,” she would say, rapping her finger at the image of the ocean in our text—a common metaphor used to explain the universal oneness of Brahman. Our personalities are like individual droplets of rain, the metaphor goes, which might separate from the ocean momentarily, but are destined to eternally return to it’s vast depths. “But I’m not sure I’d like that,” she said, crinkling up her face. “I have my own personality. I don’t want that to get absorbed into everything else.”

Five years ago, sitting in my desk two rows away from the nun and her automated wheel chair in my daily uniform—a white polo shirt tucked in to a pair of slacks—I couldn’t have possibly imagined that India would play such a large role in my life. My eighteen-year old mind petulantly dismissed the people who traveled to India as hippies, peace core zealots, or bleeding-heart Catholics.

The students in front of me now, however, were not wearing Catholic Uniforms, nor could they be characterized as hippies or zealots. I rested my chin on folded hands, eyes wandering from face to face, wondering:

“How did you get here?”

Two ethnically Indian English students, a boy and a girl, roughly twenty, shared a corner at the back of the room. The boy comes from a Punjabi family; when he makes a mistake in class he often laughs, explaining his Punjabi’s attempt to usurp his Hindi. The girl’s family dialect is Kumaoni, from her ancestral village in Mukteshwar, Uttarakhand, where her father runs a successful hostel. At the moment, the girl poked my roommate’s shoulder with a pencil and leaned over his sheet for the answers. (She had long since forgotten Kumaoni and Hindi, though she allegedly spoke well when little.)

Regardless of their origins, their accents have been claimed by the Queen’s English. The boy, however, had managed to maintain the rhythms of Punjabi—rhythms, a Delhi friend told me, criticizing my Hindi, I hadn’t mastered.

The three long gray tables in the room formed a three-sided rectangle. The fourth side of the rectangle broke over a smaller wooden desk where I sat, like a teacher appraising a silent room expectantly. At the end of the table to my left, bowed in concentration in her red and green salwar kamee, was an American girl. She was one of two blondes in the program who lived in the flat opposite mine. In the morning, at 8:30, we all set off for school together. The girls tap their feet and emit impatient sighs through the screen door as I trip into my pants. When we walk down the street to bargain with the autowalla to take us to school (“no, no, I’m only giving you fifty rupees, I go by auto to Bapu Nagar every day, I know the price!”) the Indians—sipping their tea with their spread newspapers from the chai stalls—follow us with their eyes, mistaking the lot of us for husbands and wives.

My eyes rest on friends’ faces: the girl from Alaska, possessing the amazing ability to plop down on the dirtiest of floors, who teased you from a forested, arctic realm uniquely her own; another girl from England, who, similar in her love of fairies and the fanciful, scrunches her face, clenches her fists, and releases cries of frustration at the “stupid world” and it’s gender inequalities; a youth from Spain, absent today, normally sitting at the back of the room reading a novel or pulling girls’ hair, now most likely sitting on the edge of his bed doing nothing or napping; a recent economics graduate of Punjabi and Mexican origin, face folded as he ruminates the circulating conversation on gender with the seriousness of a man who strives to be the next Foucault; a Jewish girl, exhibiting perhaps the most paradoxical personality traits of them all: dropping “bra’s” like frat bros and leaping indignantly at intellectual issues close to her heart, but in the meantime declares her awkward request that you please watch her youtube videos…There are others as well—an Italian girl with a love of photography and couch surfing, an Estonian devotee to the Hindu God, Krishna, signaling her acquisition of moksha with a hilarity that sends a thrill of giddiness through her neighbors…

And on.

These faces and more are posted in photographs beside the instructors on a bulletin board in the hall—the students of the academic year 2013-14, my imagined bleeding heart Catholics, peace core zealots, and hippies. Sometimes, after school, once everyone else has departed—to the Old City to wander through the lanes or to buy presents for friends and family; to a coffee house in C Scheme for a Cappuccino over the few hours of remaining homework; or back home, to a get a head start on dinner or their hand washed laundry–I pause to observe the poses and expressions my fellow Hindi disciples assumed the first day we stepped into the institute. Our first day we were greeted in traditional Indian welcome: with garland of flowers and thumb-printed tilak on our foreheads. We hardly knew one another then. I marvel, now, several months later, at my inability to separate their faces from their personalities.

If our selves are inseparable from bodies—the way we stand, slouch, or tower; the way we cross arms in irony, insecurity, or rage; the way we twist our lips into smirks, grimaces, knowing smiles; the way our brows furrow into concentration, worry, or unexpected surprise; the way the voices we all hate to hear on video camera make public and physical the private ruminations of our own minds—I wonder, staring at these photographs, at the faces of my peers in the room as the clock ticks four, whether faces, gestures, and appearances might be signposts to a secret map of the soul, on which to uncover hidden motivations–similar, perhaps, to how one reads past and future in the palm of a hand.

“Why did you decide to study Hindi?” I asked. One by one, those faces looked up at me with mild surprise at my sudden outburst. Luckily, I had befriended them over the past three-and-a-half months. They joined words to their personalities of answer.

Please continue on to Part II…

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