More than a decade ago, as a stranger eking out a living in India’s Hindi Heartland, my knowledge of the Rashtrabhasha was peppered with Indipop-influenced Hinglish and Mumbaiya mutterings picked up from Bollywood balderdash.
But after living in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh for five years, my confusion with the ka and the ki remains.
How can you fathom why ‘baarish’ happens with feminine fluidity while ‘paani’ flows with masculine might? Particularly when you hail from a region where a line of Hindi sounds something like ‘Tum kutta, hum baranda, roj roj tatty, kun safaa!’ (This translates into: Your dog keeps crapping all over my verandah everyday. Who the hell do you think will clean up the mess?)
Then you have the gendered vehicles. Looks notwithstanding, a ‘Hindian’ bus has a ladylike gait while a truck is a male mover. The whys were initially countered with answers such as ‘Aesa kaha jaata hai’ (This is how it is) or ‘Vyakaran se poochho’ (Ask Mr Grammar).
Maybe, I told myself, a bus– a passenger train too – chalti hai because it carries people in its womb as does a pregnant woman her unborn child. And a truck chalta hai as it shoulders freight like a man expected to bear responsibilities.
My first brush with the complexity of Hindi was in Varanasi when a new acquaintance invited me for dinner. Knowing I belong to a predominantly rice-eating region, he gave me three options – roti or chawal or both.
Reluctantly, I opted for roti. But when the chawal came, beautifully boiled to the form of aromatic bhaat, I cursed myself for devouring a roti too many. My stomach felt betrayed that night, but my memory chip had a new input – people in northern India refer to both forms of rice, cooked or uncooked, as chawal.
A word that would often put me in a spot was aage. The word means ‘before’ in my mother tongue but ‘beyond’ in Hindi. A tempo driver or rickshaw-puller would invariably drop me beyond a certain landmark, forcing me to trudge back to the spot I felt was aage.
In Uttar Pradesh capital Lucknow, I had my first altitudinal encounter with Urdu. This was when I tried to find the house of a Urdu professor in Aminabad locality. The man I sought directions from advised me to go zeene se. Forehead furrowed, I spent the next hour searching for a character named Zeena who would lead me to the professor. Until I ran into the same man who guided me to my destination – right next to where I was standing.
In one step, zeene turned from a flesh-and-blood person into a flight of stairs.
Today, my Urdu-flavoured Hindi is better despite the occasional gender goof-up. Before returning to hometown Guwahati, I felt I had changed from a pardesi (outsider) to a Pradeshi. One of the indicators was water; used to ‘eating’ the vital H-two-O back home, I learnt to ‘drink’ it in Varanasi and Lucknow.
But I still wonder why male-dominated forces such as army and police should have a feminine form of address. In this age of gender equality – provided we have more booby troops – will a day come when the fauj fights like a man?