Sunday, March 24, 2013

Heavy and Halting

I have mixed feelings about Hindi. Is that because I've grown up in a place that has concocted its own coarse, bent-out-of-shape version of it? Is it because my classes equipped me with grammar and a vocabulary, but with no ear for or appreciation of the language? Did it all start when I heard a girl from my school use the word 'parantu'  when asking a sandwichwala to make her a sandwich without butter, and realized that I probably sounded exactly like her when I spoke Hindi - awkward, correct but lacking any sense of context? My pronunciations were always off, my handwriting too spiky, my comprehension one step removed.
Hindi was a foreign land and the syllabus that was supposed to help me navigate it only seemed to reinforce this sense of alienness. Short stories and plays that were filled with unfamiliar names, references and words; poems written by heavyweights that quite literally crushed our tentative interest; and everywhere the omnipresent theme - women in society, dowry deaths, the travails of the dark-skinned, religious unity, the importance of striving to be a better person, national pride. Confronted by a Hindi text or even an essay topic, we knew we'd have to weave in or decode a lesson somewhere. The way things were (and might still be) even the most competent teacher couldn't have helped us. And truth be told, some of my Hindi teachers were a type in themselves - stern, thin-lipped, forbidding. Hindi seemed to be a language that took itself too seriously, and when the mandatory exams were done, I chose to let it ebb almost entirely from my life, cultivating my study of English and my facility in my mother-tongue. Looking back, it's no surprise that I ended up speaking Hindi only when I was engaging with strangers. I've dreamt in French when I briefly took lessons, but never - ever - in Hindi.
Why bring this up now? Because in watching a Hindi play this week, I felt all the associations of awkwardness bear down upon me again. I understood most of what was being said but yet it felt as though I couldn't get to the bottom of it - the language, gestures, expressions and ultimately the plot coming together to articulate an aesthetic that was for some reason, faintly but undoubtedly - and annoyingly - impenetrable.
This is partly the fault of the play, whose conventional plot and none-too-subtle metaphors had me wincing as I recalled my textbooks from years past. But it's mostly mine. Hindi is, after all, the language of our government, our popular movies and songs, of much of our public discourse and I'd like to engage with it in a more active, meaningful way. I'm on a quest to watch more plays, more movies, and read more texts but am struggling to find those that don't come across as stage-y or stilted. One braveheart has volunteered to conduct an introductory tour of Hindi theater, and more recommendations are welcome.

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