Part II Learning Hindi in India: The Land of Oz
The day before I asked my classmates why they had come to Jaipur to learn Hindi I was fielded a similar question by three Indian boys. Their motorcycles jerked to a halt beside me in Raja Park. One of them tore off his helmet. “Hello!” he called out. “Hello, wait! Can you talk with us for just one second?”
I was returning from studying at Barista, a coffee shop with mediocre coffee but free Wifi. It was eight o’clock; darkness had settled comfortably into the alleyways and uneven concrete footpaths of Raja Park. A white sterile glow emanated from the pharmacies in front of Govind Marg, where the chemists stood behind their stands watching the policeman at the end of the road direct traffic. A contrasting gold spilled over the entrance of Sunrise Bakeries onto the street, where aunties tottered out stiffly with bags of pastas and rolls of bread. Two teenagers chopped vegetables from their stations with brows of sweat. Teenage girls entered to gossip indoors over small pizzas and sandwiches.
I inched, somewhat grudgingly, with my new friends to the side of the road. We slipped into a space between two parked Maruti cars and a motorcycle. “Please, what is your name?” the youth with the strange accent insisted. He was obviously the leader of the bunch. I find many packs of Indian youths have leaders.
“John,” I said.
“And where are you from?”
“Amreeka Se,” I answered.
“Holy shit, you know Hindi!” another exclaimed, from his position behind the first on the motorcycle.
The youth sitting on the second motorcycle then fired, “Aap Hindi kaisi jante hain? (Why do you know Hindi?)
I receive this question several times a week. My answers are formulaic. “Because I’m interested in India,” I answered, and shrugged.
The American in me seeks to wander down the street undisturbed, especially in the evening. But where the American seeks anonymity, the Indian seeks community. At every street corner men have their hands around one another’s shoulders. Old men sit, gossip, and drink chai from their plastic chairs on the street corner. Friends cluster around a dhabba and tease the man heating paneer kabaabs over a grill. He threatens to throw charcoal at them; they scatter out into the street, laughing.
India is a great web. Everyone is connected. Everyone is a relative, friend, business connection, enemy. The American, seeking passage through the crowd, is caught up in the net, despite his proclivity for privacy.
“How long have you been here?” The accented one pursued. He planted a leg on the ground to support his bike. I contemplated his accent, felt I had properly identified the nationality by now: Australian.
“Three months!” He exclaimed. “You have learned so much Hindi in three months?”
“No, I have been studying for three years.”
“Where?” The one behind asked.
“They teach Hindi in America?”
“Yeah. At my University.”
“We are trying to learn English and you are trying to learn Hindi!” The boy from the second motorcycle exclaimed, slapping his knee. He shared a smile with the others at the wonder of globalization.
Their bemusement was not unfamiliar. Their smiles are the smiles of the Indian strangers I encounter almost everyday—smiles of gratitude that an American would learn their language. After they establish the wheres and whys of my Hindi, they subside into silence, no longer knowing what to say. The crinkles around their eyes entreat me to go on; to entertain them with my strange accent; to ask questions about India; to share secret of America. They do not say these things aloud.
The Australian asked if I was on facebook. Indian youths often stop me on the road and request my phone number, facebook name, or other contact information. At one cinema I was even surrounded by employees requesting my autograph and picture! The Australian entreated me to call him, “Any time.”
“I am visiting my family for several months,” he went on, holding his helmet under his left arm and pressing his right hand to his chest—like a friendly declaration to a custom’s agent. “I have nothing to do. My friends and I wander. Party. Drink. Smoke. Must.” He grinned at his gang. The one behind introduced himself as a local of Jaipur. The third on the second bike clarified that he worked in Dubai.
“You like pot? We should smoke up sometime,” the Dubai-walla said.
Autos pick out my white skin in the crowd to earn money. Boys my age pick me out to drink and smoke pot.
“Sounds good,” I said.
They pulled the clutch on their bikes. Engines roared and lights flashed. Hollering goodbye at me with grins and ecstatic hands, they veered into the flow of traffic—off to a restaurant for drinks and a rooftop for blunts, perhaps.
The next day, when I asked my classmates in room #14, “Why did you come to study Hindi?” I channeled the same questions as my friends in Raja Park. But this time, I didn’t want formulas, but real answers.
Although the locals often ask me here what I am doing here in India and why I know Hindi, I rarely interrogate how my goals have changed since starting this strange journey. I rarely recall the hours spent copying down sentences on grammar sheets; reading short stories by Premchand or Manto; making notecards or copying words ad infinitum into my notebook late at night. I rarely question the strangeness of an American speaking Hindi, or the American scholarships making all of this possible.
Learning Hindi has been a part of my life for three and a half years. Its strangeness has become mundane.
“What do you want to do with your Hindi later?” I continued, fishing for an answer that would reassure me that I was not-in-fact crazy, that I was also on the track to something real. “For a job, I mean?”
One of the American blondes blinked. A linguistics major from California, born in Texas, she released a sigh and slumped her shoulders; this question, too, had been weighing on her for a long time. “I have absolutely no idea,” she admitted. Others are quick to echo their own uncertainty. “Maybe I’ll work for the government…I want to get involved with women’s rights organizations or NGO’s that prevent sex trafficking…I’m applying for the Pickering scholarship…that’s a good question, Johnny-boy, wish I knew, Hindi’s not exactly as useful as I thought it would be, haha!”
Few of us know exactly what we want to do with our Hindi. My Hindi life-goals vie with one another in their competitive lack of practicality: translate Hindi literature (which I believe should have a space in American bookstores beside Japanese authors like Murakami); use my Hindi interviews and research over the next nine months to write a book; maybe work as a journalist between India and the United States. The application of my Hindi spreads thinly between several dreams—finding itself all the more diluted. Sitting in front of the classroom that afternoon, I challenged the others to reveal what their motives might be, how well they had stuck to their initial plans. Or were we all Dorothies, who had forgotten Kansas after spending so much time in the Land of Oz?
Please Continue to Part III…