Part III Learning Hindi in India: Frontier Futures


But what do you plan to do with your Hindi?” Middle-aged Indians press. Indian parents often urge their children to become doctors and engineers. And when you speak Hindi, they are quick to adopt you into the family—that great Indian net—and begin worrying about you. They ask with skepticism and concern, wrinkles furrowing their foreheads, “But what kind of job do you expect to get from learning Hindi, beta?”

Their questions are well founded. This is the global age of English, after all. In India, the goddess of English bestows boons of status, job opportunity, and marriage prospects. Hindi is the language of the common man, the village, tradition. Speak Hindi, and you are looked down upon as being backwards, uneducated, rustic.

“I’m doing research on Hindi literature,” I answer. “I’ll need Hindi for that,” I joke.

“And after?”

“Maybe I’ll go on to be a professor. Or a journalist. Or I’ll work for the government. It isn’t entirely clear yet. I’ve got a year left before I make a decision.”

They nod their heads upon hearing about professorship or diplomatic work. Respectable jobs, they think to themselves. “It is good that you are learning Hindi,” they say, now culturally flattered and practically appeased. In truth, their inquisitions are not so different than my mother’s; the half-truth I tell Indians is the same half-truth I’ve been making to my parents and myself for years, which amounts to:

“I’m making it up as I go along.”

But after spending a couple months with the other students in the institute, and asking them about their own ambitions, I have found they vacillate on the application of Hindi as well. Part of our uncertainty is induced by the language study itself. We are busy squinting our eyes down at the page, not up at the horizon. The Big What For? loses itself in a rigorous schedule of our studies. We are trained to be students: to do our work and do it well. Hard work and achievement in a language is it’s own reward, we rationalize. We finish the task assigned and find value in the completed assignment.

Teachers and students at AIIS form a self-contained bubble universe. We exchange work like air: in, out, in, out. Four hours of class: short stories, newspaper articles, grammar, vocabulary, audio listening drills, pronunciation practice, presentations, debates, movie watching, conversations with guests from all walks of life. Pencils and pens scratch and erase with the ticking clock after lunch. Graded tests and grammar practices are returned streaked with red marks. A never-ending cycle of responsibility flows back and forth between student and teacher within it’s own internal logic of meaning making.

“I’m still not sure how I’m going to use my Hindi in the future,” the blonde American girl who lives across from my apartment in Adarsh Nagar says. “But I know I’m happy to have this experience now.”

The U.S. government invests money in globe trotters like us because of our professed clarity for how Hindi will be relevant to our future careers. But our application personal essays and statements of purpose are rough drafts—frontier maps Louis and Clark have yet to explore. The government knows this. We—student and state—fool ourselves temporarily into an agreement that they are definitive.

There is an audible sigh in the classroom when the students realize they are not alone. Good, they think. I’m not the only one stumbling in the dark.

I’ve asked the teachers about what sorts of professions the previous Hindi students had gone on to fulfill. Their answers are as vague as our aspirations: professors, diplomats, journalists, NGO workers.

The U.S. and India have had cultural ties as early our independence. But we contemporary Hindi learners stand on the new frontier; we are participants in a venture for which clear roads have not yet been demarcated. In America, one habituates oneself to the available infrastructure: middle school, high school, college; intern, graduate, job; higher studies, PhD, professorship. But there are not necessarily clear rungs on the Hindi ladder. The potential for Hindi speakers in the public and private sector and governmental and for corporate, and non-governmental demand are only now being articulated in the increasingly close and complicated relationship between India and the United States.

My Fulbright advisors said as much at my orientation in Washington D.C.: “We’re investing in possibilities that haven’t even been imagined yet. You will help to create new networks of intercultural cooperation.” Or, in other words, “We’re relying on you, kid. Here’s your stipend. Best of luck. Don’t let us down.”

And what are we Americans doing on the frontier?

Several students are majoring in linguistics; their interest in Hindi arises from an academic interest. Deciding to study Hindi was not a big life decision for them at the time. An elected amusement, perhaps: why not study Hindi instead of Spanish? Others are first generation Indians seeking reunion with their roots. They imagine Hindi, the largest language in India and third largest in the world, to be useful somehow.

One of the students is an economics major. He wants to use Hindi to strengthen his ties with the Indian business community and understand popular perspectives in a developing country. My roommate hopes to use Hindi to consult scholarly sources on Hinduism, unavailable in English in the United States. Two others—bachelor and master students in anthropology—use Hindi to interview prisoners and trace the history of Tibetan displacement. The student who speaks fluent Punjabi wants to be a journalist, reinvigorate the use of Hindi amongst the immigrant youth culture in Britain, and discover why Punjabis hate Hindi so much. One girl has no reason for learning Hindi at all! She stumbled into the scholarship; she hopes accommodate Hindi with international public health.

For as many students with plans for their Hindi, there are an equal number who remain in the dark. One student had an interest in Mughal History; he now has distaste for Hindi and it’s cumbersome Sanksritic vocabulary. He wishes he had spent his time with Persian or Urdu. The student who had been inspired to study Hindi from her cultural and linguistic interests in college now wonders if she has wasted years of her time—not because of any deficiency in the language, but because she has doubts her ability to live in a country where movement for women is more constrained. And yet she thinks to herself: I have already invested so much time! I must make it work! And in this vein she has begun to wonder about a life using Hindi that would not require living in India.

The study of Hindi has become a part of our lives with more importance than we had ever imagined. Years ago, when we embarked upon the path, we chose Hindi to augment our interests and goals. Now, Hindi has assumed a life of it’s own; rather than adapting Hindi to our interests and goals, we now find ourselves adapting our interests and goals to our use of Hindi! It has become an invisible tattoo, whose picture we engraved unthinkingly onto our skin when we were younger, and now view with more hope, appreciation, apprehension, and concern now that we are older.

We navigate between India and America, between fear and confidence of what we can achieve. Some will progress onward with Hindi. Others, perhaps, will abandon it. Some will light out into uncharted territories. Others will follow routes blazed by others. Some, one day, in a reality far from now, might dust off old assignments out of cardboard boxes to look at a script both foreign and familiar.

Languages are windows into other worlds. We stare through Hindi at India, wondering if one of the passing faces will be our own.