Adventures in Hindi Part 1: A mother-tongue fading behind a veil

For the past few months, I’ve found myself exploring language, specifically Hindi, in an office-chair adventure. What started me off were some stray comments and even more stray thoughts, and then the subject grew like Frankenstein’s creation as I obsessed with how Hindi is (or is not yet) used by various people on the Internet, in life, and so on. I hit blocks repeatedly as I couldn’t locate enough on the topic to satiate my craving for knowledge.

This post is the first post of a four-post entry, and while this series describe my “adventures” with Hindi, I suspect that my experiences would hold good other Indian languages.

But before I start, a warning. I’m not someone into culture and language and preserving stuff like that. To me, culture and language evolve with people and times, and while there is surely merit in preserving literature and nuances of less-spoken languages, I’m not involved in that. My concern with language–any language–is only to the extent that one person can speak or write it and another understand or read it.

What got me into this avenue of exploration was some volunteer work, culminating in an incident that made me feel I was a character in a comic strip, and the joke was on me. And a desire to break out of that comic strip.

Some background first.

Hindi is my mother tongue, the language my mother spoke from her childhood and also studied in till she switched over to English in college. But Hindi was not my first language; my mother wanted me to be fluent in English and pointed out that I’d anyway pick up Hindi from people around me, so why not give me a good foundation in English instead?

For the first two years of my life I heard, understood, and spoke only English. So when I socialized with other kids my age and they were babbling away to each other in Hindi, I would be gaping at them. On the other hand, I’ve heard this story of how, when I was around two, a neighbor asked me what I was doing and I allegedly said, “Basking in the sun.” I confess my vocabulary has been on the decline ever since.

Anyway, so just as my mother predicted, I picked up Hindi pretty well soon after. Better, in fact, than many other kids, because by mother’s Hindi was good, and she made it a point to teach me proper Hindi.

School back then had this three-language formula where one had to learn three languages, and cast them off one after another by passing qualifying exams, retaining for the school-end exams only the language that was the “medium of instruction” for the school-end exams. So I accordingly studied and finished off with Sanskrit by class 8, then wrapped up Hindi by class 10, and was left with English, which continued for the exam where marks mattered: the Higher Secondary exam.

Class 10, thus, was the last time my Hindi underwent the scrutiny of grammar and spelling.

Hindi remained a major language for me all through my childhood, of course. We spoke a mixture of Hindi and English at home. We used Hindi to talk about food and recipes and whether I’d brushed my teeth, and to gossip about relatives and festivals–all simple, normal stuff. English was the language for studying, and also the one to discuss (ugh) studies or work or philosophy, or anything that required complex concepts not entirely dependent on emotions.

Hindi wasn’t just for talking, though. I read books voraciously, the Gulshan Nandas jostling for shelf-space alongside Munshi Premchand and Nirmal Verma and Shivani and Amrita Pritam and Neeraj and Bhishm Sahni and whatnots. We saw plays often, ranging from Aashadh ka Ek Din to Sakharam Binder.

And Hindi was very much the language I used to speak to others, especially elderly relatives who were not that comfortable with English or downright contemptuous of it. They would either speak khariboli Hindi, or shuddh Hindi, or Urdu, and my “Hindustani” Hindi served well enough. And I used Hindi with friends, usually to swap dialogues from Bollywood favorites.

Ah Bobby, ah Sholay….

Over the years, as Hindi-speaking peers around me slipped out of Hindi to either Hinglish or English, I kept in touch with Hindi through books and magazines. Magazines were easy, and if Dharmayug and Saaptaahik Hindustan and Vaama bit the dust, Sarita and Grihashobha continued, though I even today miss the deadly “laghu-kathaas” of Saarika (nowadays, they call them flash stories in English). Hindi books were tougher to get, especially as fewer and fewer bookshops stocked a good collection, and I’d have to go to Saahitya Academy to get good translations, or all the way to Kashmeeri Gate to check out Atmaram Book Store. I switched to re-reading my existing stock, and then, like many other hobbies and interests, Hindi began fading.

Part of the reason was that I was now in cities where Hindi is Bollywood based, and speakers stick to basics. Say a sentence like कठिन निर्णय लेने की क्षमता पर दुष्प्रभाव, and you’ll be greeted with blank stares. So language was simplified, concepts simplified if Hindi was used, or I’d switch over to English. Most people around me were more fluent and comfortable with English, even persons belonging to pukka Hindi speaking families. Sometimes I would be talking to someone for an hour before either of us realized that we both were Hindi speakers, and even after that, we’d stick to English for all serious and important stuff.

I think persons speaking other Indian languages would be having similar experiences…

And although I have stayed in touch with Hindi and remain fluent in it, English has been my main language for years now. Not only is it is the language I studied in, and work in, and the language I write in, it is also the language I think in. The language I speak whenever the topic gets complicated or I have to express a concept or give a detailed explanation, and even if I use Hindi, for such topics, English words creep in. I began finding it more and more difficult to remember the tougher and more precise Hindi words–except when I was talking to a genuine Hindi speaker, when that person’s comfort in Hindi and the back-home Hindi accent acted like a trigger for my memory, and I spoke a better quality of Hindi.

None of this was a conscious decision. But some incidents over the last few months made me start dusting out the Hindi in my mind…

As part of my volunteer work, I often talk to a varied section of dementia caregivers. I reflexively switch to Hindi when talking to Hindi speakers who seem uncomfortable with English, and sometimes I get requests from younger members of families asking me to talk to their elderly parents who know only Hindi. I hadn’t realized this was some USP of mine, and I started hunting for material in dementia care in Hindi to help these people. Stuff I could give others…

Turned out that the Hindi pamphlets on dementia available online were all (as far as I could locate) from Alzheimer’s associations *outside* India, organizations that had got stuff translated into multiple languages to serve the immigrants in their country. I located some dubbed videos, too, that illustrated dementia through “stories” and interviews, or talked of dementia in a “pocket video” format.

I was rather taken aback. According to Wikipedia, in 2001 India had 258 to 422 million persons who spoke “Hindi” (click here). A paper I chanced upon, (click here) says that Hindi is officially known to 50% of Indians. And yet, no one here in India has got around to making Hindi material accessible easily on the web; for that we ended up reaching associations outside India?

(as an aside, India also has 125 million English speakers, next only to America at 251 million, and well over UK at 60 million: (see here), a factoid that has nothing to do with this blog post, but I couldn’t resist adding it )

To continue…while I’d not thought of preparing any material in Hindi, I had assumed that others must have done so. Obviously I wasn’t the only one who had mentally delegated off the work to others.

With my newfound alertness, I began asking questions in social groups. When I pointed out that we needed a Hindi version of some pamphlet, a fluent Hindi speaker bemoaned the lack of Hindi translators. Others I contacted did much the same hand-throwing-up.

My turning point was a conversation where I asked a volunteer why he didn’t do the translation himself. “How can I!” he said. I pointed out that he was not just fluent in Hindi, he even used Hindi during his training programs and counseling sessions. There were no hardcore medical terms in caregiving material, so why hesitate?

He mentioned grammar, he mentioned spellings…

I thought back to the horrors of deciding between ड and ड़ and figuring out whether to use रुor रू and don’t even get me started on that whole problem of the difference between पं and पँ and I quite saw the point. But what about recording a talk or a training session or an interview, I asked. That’s spoken Hindi, so that should be okay.

I still sensed the hesitation, and who was I to point it out, I’d not done anything in Hindi myself, had I? (Luckily he was so much on the defensive he didn’t point that out…or maybe he was just more polite than I was)

It was, in a way, a surreal experience. I felt I was floating outside my body, seeing two characters in a comic strip, with me being one of them, and the joke was on us. If we, who knew and used Hindi frequently, don’t want to use that knowledge to make material accessible to others, what business did we have complaining of the lack of Hindi material?

An hour later, I was doodling the phrase “figure out what’s happening on this Hindi front” on my to-do list. My Hindi adventure had been kicked off.

By now, my laptop has a number of folders with the word Hindi; an entire “notebook” is devoted to it in my Microsoft Onenote, and all lumped together form the “Hindi project”. The monster has acquired a life of its own.

Life’s busy by and large, and time and energy available for unproductive forays is limited. On some days, as I push aside other priorities to explore another wild thought related to this Hindi stuff, I sometimes pause to wonder *why* I’ve got into this totally weird exploration with no tangible immediate benefit, but pauses are only pauses, and there I am again, frittering away another hour on sorting my thoughts or surfing to satisfy my curiosity.

Very little of what I ponder about has any relation with how it started: preparing caregiver material in Hindi. I’m now this utterly confused person, making assumptions, finding them fall flat, trying again, and again, forced to admit that this Hindi business is far more complex than what I thought it was. The original concern, creating a couple of pamphlets in Hindi, is a bit like that sarcophagus over which a large memorial monument is built, so large that the sarcophagus is insignificantly small and forgotten.

I suspect the story/ situation in most Indian languages would be fairly similar…

Next time, I’ll describe my (since aborted) forays into translation.

And as an aside, current availability (as known to me) of dementia care material in Indian languages is listed in this section of my website.

This is part 1 of a four-part post that shares observation on use of Hindi on the Internet and suggests ways to reach out to Hindi speakers over the web. The other parts are:

If you feel this “Adventures in Hindi” series of blog could be of interest to someone, please share the link.

Note added in Oct 2012:

Subsequent to this series of posts, I began work on a Hindi website for dementia care, and also created and uploaded more videos in Hindi. A brief update on the experience so far, along with links to the various uploaded material, is here: Creating online dementia care material in Hindi: my experience so far.

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About Swapna Kishore
I'm a writer, blogger, and resource person for dementia/ caregiving in India. I have also been a dementia caregiver for well over a decade, and am deeply concerned about dementia care in India; on this blog I share my personal caregiving journey, my experiences as a resource person for dementia care, and musings on life, aging, dementia in India, and such sundries. More about me and the work I do for dementia care. For structured information on dementia, for discussions, tools and tips on caregiving issues, for resources in India, and for caregiver interviews, please check my website http://dementiacarenotes.in (or its Hindi version, http://dementiahindi.com). For videos on dementia caregiving (English and Hindi), check the youtube channel here.

6 Responses to Adventures in Hindi Part 1: A mother-tongue fading behind a veil

  1. austere says:

    Hats off for trying.
    Insaan prayaas toh nischit kar sakta hai.

    I come to Hindi via Gujarati (class 8 level)– so stay away from attempting shuddh boli.

  2. Pingback: Adventures in Hindi Part 2: The failed experiment of Have-English-can-translate-to-Hindi « Swapna writes…

  3. Pingback: Adventures in Hindi Part 3: India Shining, Internet, and the entertainment override « Swapna writes…

  4. Pingback: Adventures in Hindi Part 4: In the end is the beginning, or, more observations, a summing up and a way forward. « Swapna writes…

  5. Pingback: What blogging means to me « Swapna writes…

  6. Pingback: Creating online dementia care material in Hindi: my experience so far « Swapna writes…

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