Hungarian linguist Dr. Maria Negyesi speaks Hindi, even the mishrit bhasha, fluently. She reveals that Hungarians’ interest in India is not limited to the language, it pans the whole culture

It takes a few seconds to register the fact that Hungarian Dr. Maria Negyesi is speaking in perfect, colloquial Hindi. She is the head of the department of Indo-European Studies, Eotovos LorAnd (ELTE) University in Budapest.

Aap kahaan baithke baat karna chahogi? (Where would you like to sit and chat?),” she continues, “kis bhasha mein baat karna chahogi? (Which language would you like to speak in?)”

Maria was in town for a seminar on ‘Teaching Hindi in Non Hindi Speaking Areas,’ organised by the Hindi Department of St. Teresa’s College. There is not even a hint of a foreign accent when she talks about the importance of teaching spoken Hindi in Hindi.

Learning on the job

She has been teaching Hindi at her university for more than 30 years. A student of the classical languages (Latin, Ancient Greek, Sanskrit and Indology) with no prospects of getting a job, she simultaneously started learning and teaching Hindi at her university to fill in a slot that had fallen vacant in the department. When she told her department head that she couldn’t teach Hindi because she didn’t know the language, he told her, “You know so many languages…tum seekh logi (you will learn).”

Maria says all she could find by way of a teaching aid was a Russian course book for teaching Hindi. “I know Russian so I managed. This was much before the Internet. Now it is so simple, everything is available at the click of a mouse.” She later went on to develop course material for teaching Hindi, and even compiled a textbook.

She first visited India in 1983, under a University Grants Commission Scholarship, for a desh parichay (literally translated - getting familiar with the country). Listening to the language she had to teach, and hearing it being spoken.

She travelled to various parts of the country as part of the programme. It was a couple of years later, in 1985, that she did a 10 month course for foreigners in Hindi teaching at the Kendriya Hindi Sansthan in New Delhi. “That is where I got my ‘formal training’ and I got familiar with mishrit bhasha.” Mishrit bhasha is that version of Hindi which is spoken colloquially, a blend of various influences. Initially, she admits, learning Hindi was not easy. Hindi and Hungarian have the same noun system but the verb system is different. “Teaching Hindi through Hungarian is easier than say English.”

Interest in India

It is fascinating to hear about the interest in our national language in faraway Hungary. The interest crystallised in the form of university course in the late 19th century, as far back as 1873, when Sanskrit became a course in Maria’s university. By way of an explanation for the interest in India, Maria offers, “Hungarians came to Europe from the East. There is evidence of contact between Hungarians and Indian as early as the 15th century.” And then jokes, “And we are the only people in Europe who can eat chillies like Indians.” Though there is no evidence of commercial contact because of the distance, there has always been plenty of scholarly and cultural connection.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s personal physician was Hungarian, there were Hungarian artists in Shantiniketan and so was Sándor Kõrösi Csoma, the person who established Tibetan Studies or Tibetology as an academic discipline and Csoma also complied the Tibetan-English dictionary, Amrita Shergil was part-Hungarian…Maria reels of a list of eminent Hungarians who have been in touch with India. Of her former Indology students, one teaches Sanskrit in France, another teaches Hindi in Oxford and two others are working on their PhDs in the United States and Oxford.

Ironically, a couple of them do not want to return to Hungary to teach. “We have good quality Indology scholars and we are an excellent Indian Studies centre…but there is no money. Chairs need to be established. Because of the economic crisis in Europe, there is no money for us. In the next year or so the course will become dearer.”

Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) offers the Tagore Research Fellowship besides a scholarship for two Hungarian nationals to pursue PhD in Indology or Indian studies in an Indian university. But these are not enough, Maria says, to counter the acute funds crunch.

It is hard to comprehend the reasons for interest in learning Hindi in Hungary but Maria says it is out of genuine interest in the language and in India. She dismisses the quest for ancient wisdom in India as youngsters dwelling in sapnon ki duniya (living in a land of dreams). “India is not the land of elephants, sadhus and snake charmers anymore. India is changing and it is a different India today.” The interest is not limited to just learning the language, there is interest in Indian culture too.

There is a Hungarian sitarist-trained under Pandit Ravi Shankar, a Kalakshetra-trained dancer who teaches dance in Budapest and even a Kalari expert.

Learning Hindi and staying in Hungary is not without its uses. For instance, there is interpretation. For tourism, and in courts and police stations, “our government is very generous. Once there was young man from Punjab who was arrested for possession of drugs. I was the interpreter for him.”

Maria appeals to the Bharatiya sarkar to do something to save the Indo-European Studies department. The Chinese government is, incidentally, pumping in huge amounts of money for Chinese and has made learning Chinese infinitely more tempting. “There is one solution – more scholarships from the Indian government. I hope someone is reading…”