After I wrote my last entry one reader, Sunil, left a comment.
Aap Hindi kiyon sikh rahe hai?
“Why are you learning Hindi.”
The answer is not so simple as many other westerners I’ve heard. I can’t say “I saw some Hindi films and wanted to understand them better.” or “My business takes me to India a lot and it’s good to know.” For me the first is a consequence of learning – I am enjoying understanding what I see a bit better. The second is a dream. For all the business travel I did last year – over 100 days on the road – I really wish most of those were in India rather than the US.
So why am I learning? Let me tell you how it started:
In 1993, Sage and I went vegetarian for a while. American food has few decent obvious options for vegetarians. Food that some might think of as “Hippie food” was an option but much of it was somewhat bland. A bland tofu stir fry, tempeh reubens, beans and rice. We could have basic pasta with marinara sauce or even a cheese pizza. But beyond that the options we knew of weren’t that great. There was one cuisine, however, that seemed to have an infinite number of delicious options. If we went out to lunch at an Italian restaurant we might be able to choose between salad, pasta with marinara sauce or maybe alfredo sauce (before dairy got the best of me). But if I went to an Indian restaurant I could choose from a dozen or more different delicious options. We rapidly developed a taste for Indian food that to this day remains even as we stopped being such strict vegetarians.
But we couldn’t eat out at restaurants every night so I needed to learn to cook this food I loved if I wanted to eat it as often as I wanted to. So I got a number of cookbooks from the library including Lord Krishna’s Cuisine by Yamuna Devi. There were so many recipes in this book – I still haven’t exhausted it. I got inspired and started reading the recipes and saw a number of ingredients I wasn’t familiar with and so I’d have to venture to the one Indian grocery in the town where we lived. Fortunately this book had something I haven’t seen in many other books. It had a great glossary:
I was intrigued by this list of words. Many were words for things I already knew: Chini was sugar. Jeera was cumin while others were brand new. For a while, Sage would review these with me and I gradually learned a bunch of words. I remember surprising one Indian coworker who asked what was in a dish I’d brought to a potluck and I gave a list of ingredients including “hing”. “How do you know hing?” he asked and I told him. He then told me about the seller who would bring hing to his grandmother’s house in his village back home when he was a kid. I was glad for this story – it distracted a bit from the quality of the food I made. It was embarrassingly bad. Years later I would find that it was so helpful to have in-person instruction. I wasn’t cooking my onions nearly long enough and using about four times the amount of tomato I should’ve been.
Other than food, I didn’t study Hindi for almost two decades. I knew the names of lots of foods that I loved and tried foods from anywhere in India or Pakistan I could get it. Dosas from South India, corn rotla from Gujarat, nihari from Pakistan and all manner of sweets from jalebis to gulab jamun. When I was living in an off-grid yurt in the woods in the middle of rural USA, I would frequently make a version of phaal for dinner, often over an open fire – the wood smoke made it taste so much better. One day I even made laddu. We had no Indian grocery within a 6 hour drive but this was the early days of the Internet and one Indian grocery happened to be connected and very kind. I’d send them a list of things I needed and they’d mail them to me along with a bill that I’d pay by cheque. (This was in the days before e-commerce was really a thing).
In 2004, seeing the populace and politics of the US heading for where it is now did what many Democrats threatened to do. We immigrated to Canada. Once we got here I realized: Our company does business with US companies and if things got slow locally I could be sent back – not permanently but I’d have to spend time there when I didn’t want to. But I had a plan. I would learn French and I could go to Quebec for work instead of back to the states. Now I didn’t ever get my French skills up to the level that would be needed to work in Quebec regularly but I did get sent there once for eight months when my technical skills were needed so much my language skills didn’t matter. And so off I went.
While I was in Quebec I tried to use French as much as I could and my skills improved a lot. But it was also really exhilarating. I was speaking another language and people understood me. And though I was a tourist, I felt like I was viewed as a different sort of tourist – one who was actually interested in the people there and not just there to see tourist sites. This was especially true when I would go on bike trips outside of Quebec City where I was working. While Quebec City is a tourist city with most people speaking English and often 2-3 other languages, the area outside the city was very French and I met many folks who didn’t speak English. But it wasn’t a problem. I could manage. At first I could only manage to talk about food and necessities – where the bathroom was, how to get to the next town. Mes pneus ont besoin d’aire. “My tires need air”. As I got better I could talk about things that were more distant from necessity – politics, the weather, how people were where I grew up. It changed a bike tour from an experience seeing sights and pretty vistas in to an experience meeting new and interesting people – something far more interesting to me.
But I never forgot about Hindi. It’s hard not to living in Toronto. There were many more Indian restaurants to try, groceries were never a problem – there were several Indian groceries within a short walk from our apartment. And there were a few theatres showing Hindi films. Out of curiosity we went to a few and really enjoyed them. We got a few more from the library and then discovered the selection at our local paan shop. While they were not particularly legal copies they could be obtained for a mere $1 each and most had subtitles.
In 2010 I did my first long bike tour and did progressively longer ones every year. And then a crazy idea occurred to me. What if I went to India and brought my bike? I read a few accounts and it sounded like it could work. And that’s when I put two and two together: When I cycled in Quebec there were a number of folks who spoke English but speaking even a little French gave me an advantage. What would it be like to travel around India by bike and know Hindi? I put the idea in the back of my head until 2013 – a year in which I tried to focus on doing today what I intended to do “someday”. I did some online searching and came across a teacher and began my classes.
This language was harder than any other language I’d studied. In high school I studied Latin for several years and so when I later tried learning Spanish (before having to drop out of the class due to work conflicts) it came easily thanks to the shared Latin roots. Vocabulary in French was similar – there were many words that were almost identical to their Latin counterparts. But Hindi put me on completely unfamiliar ground. Aside from re-learning how to read (and making the same mistakes the learners at the adult literacy centre I volunteered at made in English), there were a ton of things that tied my brain in knots. A few examples (that likely I haven’t got quite right – friends in India feel free to correct/clarify:
- Latin roots were no help
- The word for yesterday and tomorrow are the same. “Kal” essentially means “the day before or after today – look at the verb tense if you want to know which.”
- There were genders to nouns but often you had to just memorize what they were unlike French or Spanish in which the last letter of the word would tell you the gender.
- Prepositions come after the word they are related to (so they’re called postpositions). For example “Milk in coffee” becomes “Coffee milk in” which to this day confuses me and I am almost as like to ask for coffee in my milk.
- The order of words is different than in English. For example “I will go to your house tomorrow.” becomes “Tomorrow I your house to will go.”
This last one was one of the hardest things for me to deal with. At first I felt like my brain had to work hard to remember the subject and object (and distinguish them) while I waited for the verb to come. And then I’d get to the verb and have to go back and try to remember which was the subject and which the object. And then often along with this I’d have to wrack my brain trying to remember the meanings of the words. All of this means that when I would listen to someone speak there would be a long pause as I translated the words they said, reshuffled them in to the order my brain was used to and then understood the sentence. Then I’d construct my reply in my head the same way, put it in the correct Hindi order. In other words, a simple couple of sentences could take a minute or two.
Reading is hard also. I read a lot like a kid in Grade 1-2. I sound out my words slowly, putting together the sounds phonetically and then repeating them. It’s particularly funny when I read half way through a long word only to find that it is a simple transliterated English word that I know well.
Watching a movie was really hard at first. Often I’d get one or two words from a sentence. It reminded me of how, growing up, our dogs would not understand full sentences of English but if they heard words they knew like “Walk” or “Supper” they would excitedly react. That was me but it would just be “Chelana” or “rath ka khaanaa” instead. On those times I would get a whole sentence I’d be so busy congratulating myself in my head I’d completely lose track of the film, no longer listening to the Hindi or even reading the English subtitles.
Last fall I finally made it to India. And all of my friends were right – I definitely didn’t need to have any Hindi. Most people spoke perfect English. But there were some moments where being able to speak a little Hindi helped or at least made it more enjoyable.
In Varanasi one of the first people I met was Akaash who owned a lassi / book shop. The next night when I was walking down the street I heard someone call my name. (Who could be calling my name? I’m on the other side of the world from home?). It was Akaash who was at this restaurant where Narayan, the gentleman in the picture, was making dosa. I joined them for a snack, having what is, to this day, the best chili and onion uthappam I have ever had. Narayan and I got to chat a bit as the neighbourhood kids delighted in getting me to call him “Chote Lal” (anyone reading know why this was so funny?). Because I spoke a little Hindi I got to hear about his wife and kids and that he’d moved with them from Chennai. I would end up going there several nights in a row partly for the great food and partly to share a cup of chai and a chat with him.
Another time in Varanasi I decided to walk the length of the city from Munshi Ghat where I stayed down to Assi Ghat and back. I followed the river down and took the road back. As I walked down the road I passed a bunch of cycle rickshaw wallas who were chatting among themselves. They offered me a ride and I told them “Main chelna pasand karta hoon.” I like to walk. And once they heard me speak Hindi we ended up talking about their families and they all opened their wallets to show me their wives and children.
When I went to Mumbai I had booked an Airbnb in Pali Hill / Bandra. Surprisingly, though this was a rather famous neighbourhood, my cab driver had no idea how to get there and had never heard of it. He clearly wasn’t trying to cheat me as it was a prepaid cab. And so I solved the problem. Google Maps to the rescue. I put in the address and told Google to find their way. But my driver spoke no English. And so, Google took care of the directions to me and I would say things like “paanch sau metre ke bad baen jaenge.” (After 500 metres, go left) It felt a bit surreal at the time but it did the job and I got to where I was going easily.
When I lived in Quebec City some of my best practice partners were taxi drivers. The same was true in India – auto walas were great to talk to. In addition to helping me remember my numbers (Teen sau rupaiya?? Nahin, pachaas!), I could ask about where they were from and their families. One day in Delhi, when I was returning from a day on the town I needed a ride from Qutb Minar metro station to my Airbnb in Mehrauli. My host said never to pay more than 30 rupees to get back as it was really close by (but up a big hill). The drivers all said they’d take me for 250 and I laughed and talked one of them down to 50. As we pulled out the driver asked me the question nearly everyone I ran in to in Delhi asked me: “Would you like to see an exhibit of local crafts?” (Read: Would you like to go to a store and be pressured to buy something for much more than the usual price?) I laughed and told him “Aaj Vaha tisera bar kuchh log ne kaha.” While it’s probably not quite correct he understood me: “This is the third time today someone told me that.” He laughed when he heard it and told me that his auto rental was about 300/day but he could get 250/tourist he brought to the store. Now it began to make sense. He took me to my place and then asked me where I was from and if I had any money from there. I wondered if this was another way he was trying to get money but then he surprised me by pulling a massive roll of cash from his pocket and handing it to me. In it were bills from all around the world. He showed me his favourite ones and told me about the people who gave them to him. Unfortunately I only had change from Canada at the time. But I did have a toonie ($2 coin) which to this day I think is pretty cool.
I found wherever I went in India the best way to get a chance to practice my Hindi was to answer any “Hello” with “Kya Haal Hai” or “Aap kaisi hain?” (How are you?). People were often surprised and would often switch to Hindi and help me out. This man, Mun, was one of those. I met him in Munshi Ghat in just that way. After a few minutes he suggested that we could practice together and meet the next day to do so. We met and after we had chai we went back to his parents’ house where we sat in an upstairs courtyard. He called to his younger sister who was still in elementary school and asked her to bring up her English books. And soon she was there with books and chai for us. We drank and chatted a bit and then got to studying. I opened the book to find both Hindi and English script – or sometimes Hindi script and a blank where the student would write in the English words. Then Mun told me: He couldn’t read. But it was no problem. He might not be able to read, but I could. And so, I sounded out the words and he would explain what they meant. We had a couple lessons like this switching back and forth between instruction and gapshap – chitchat as well as between English and Hindi.
So what I have learned over the past few years and a couple of different languages is that speaking a different language opens the door to having different experiences, meeting different people and different stories from the ones you would meet with a single language. In this sense, Hindi has delivered ek hazaar bar. – 1000 times.
And so, going forward, this is my motivation. To learn more so I can speak better and understand more. So I can learn from people with vastly different experiences from my own. And maybe someday I will box my bike up, put it on a plane and ride through India, to meet the people who live between the big cities and hear their stories as well.