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My tryst with Hindi

As a completely undistinguished student during my academic years, I have contributed significantly to the birth and growth of acidity, colitis and other anxiety related ailments that my mother currently suffers from. It is not as if, my other parent – my father - was satisfied with the contents of my progress report card – it was just that he was more spiritual and believed that everyone found their strengths in life sooner or later and had reconciled to the fact that I would find mine much, much later in life.

Age is a great equalizer and in my 40s, I can now have enriching conversations with my parents about topics that were until then not only difficult to broach but also always ended with emotional outbursts on my part and / or serious reprimand on theirs. Their weaknesses, their unfairness to me (or my perception of it), human anatomy and physiology (from appreciative, generic and medical points of view), relationships (theirs and mine with our respective spouses, siblings etc), my issues with my BMI, my laizez-faire outlook to life and my much-to-be-desired performance during my student years – all hitherto taboo topics were now open for discussion. I can now laugh about it – but when I think of some of the embarrassing moments I put my parents through – their continued acceptance of me as their child serves as a pure, unadulterated testimony of their love for me.

As a child of south Indian parents who were born and raised in remote villages in God’s own country, my exposure to Hindi was working class – where I learnt the language from maids and handy-men who worked at my parent’s home. Needless to add, this was of no help whatsoever in the presence of Hindi teachers whose concept of Hindi was light years away from the working class Hindi that I had unknowingly picked up. It was a very difficult language indeed. Not only did Hindi grammar better known as Vyakran perplex me, my knowledge of genders and tense (or the lack of it) changed the entire context of the lesson’s plot and storyline. Why! Oh Why!! Why did inanimate objects require a gender? And Why! Why!! OH Why!!! Why did verbs vary with gender? And Why! Why!! Why!!! Oh Why!!!! Why did entire sentences change with gender? A “Raja jaa rahaa tha” whereas “Rani jaa rahee thi” was a killer to the mind of a Malayalee child whose native tongue was the most sexually indiscriminating language with the added advantage of no genders specified to inanimate objects. My preferred language of communication – aka – English also did not hold such difficult frontiers to be conquered.

I fearlessly ploughed along – fully surrendering to the fact that learning by rote would be the only way I could clear the subject. But there too my cursed luck did not support me.

In class seven of the Maharashtra Board, there was a beautiful poem called ‘Desh Hamaara’. It was an inspirational poem that hit the hearts of us thirteen year olds with its description of the beauty of India and Indians. It started as “Main banjara le ek taara, ghooma bharath saara”.

The last paragraph spoke about the qualities of the Indian man and woman. “Bharath ka har nar naahar ke samaan aur Bharath ki har naari angaar”. It meant ‘every Indian man was like a tiger and every Indian woman was like a ball of fire’

I had learnt this poem by rote, one because I liked it and two because this poem was marked as ‘Important’ by the teacher for our oral and written tests.

Come exam day, I was confident of my preparation by rote and hopeful that I would score well on Questions from the text book and would probably lose marks only in the ‘Composition / essay’ section.

And lo and behold! When the paper arrived, ‘Desh Hamara’ featured majorly in many sections viz; ‘fill in the blanks’, ‘critical appreciation’ etc.

There was even a ‘ ek vakya mein uttar do’ aka ‘answer in one sentence’ – “Bharat ka har nar kis prakaar hota hai?”

I knew it all… I had nailed this paper.

A few weeks later, we had our Parents Teachers meeting to discuss our performance in the tests and my mother sat nervously in the waiting room – repeatedly asking me if I was expecting anything untoward. I was confident on the averageness of my intelligence and therefore told her that there would be no surprises this time. Despite my votes of confidence for myself, my mother never relaxed.

My name was finally called…. My class teacher who was also our Hindi teacher beckoned us to the chairs opposite the desk where she sat. My mother and she greeted each other warmly. She shared all the things I was good at and told my mother that if I paid more attention and worked harder I had the potential to top the class. But alas!

And then she brought out my Hindi paper and opened sheet 3 of the set. She then gave me a look of utter disdain and gave a look of abject sympathy for my poor mother and pointed to the answer I had given to the question “Bharat ka har nar kis prakar hota hai?” I knew the answer even as I stood there – a full 6 weeks after the test. I was confident she was mistaken – until she read out the answer. My poor mother – even with her poverty stricken knowledge of hindi understood the answer and the stupidity or the wickedness of the answer – depending on whether I had answered it through my lack of knowledge or with a streak of mischief.

I had answered “Bhaarath ka har nar naari ke samaan hota hai”. Literally translated, it meant ‘every Indian man is like a woman’.

Oh the shame of it all…. Other teachers, friends and cousins got wind of it. I was never allowed to forget it until many years later.

I can vouch that the answer was a product of careless over-confidence. But after that I was a changed person as far as Hindi was considered. I was very careful with the language thereafter. Careful and many miles away – I used it only when my life depended on it. Oh and it became important to me many years later when my north Indian mother-in-law from Lucknow who only spoke Hindi used to converse with me. The only upside was that I gave her numerous opportunities to laugh. And she loved the way her ‘Madraasi bahu’ spoke Hindi.

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Smita Nair Jain is a globally recognised keynote speaker and futurist. Energise your event with her inspirational presentations that leave audiences stimulated.

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