Society

Through the language glass

October is supposed to be the month of recalling the most embarrassing moments of your life — well, I just made that up — so let me begin by recalling one of mine.

When I was in Class IX, we had a Hindi teacher who was liberal with criticism and miserly with marks. If she gave you 60 marks out of 100, it meant you had the potential to be another Harivansh Rai Bachchan, even though back then no one wanted to be a writer or poet — though one would have liked to be another Amitabh Bachchan.

Three people changed the lay Indian’s outlook towards writing: Shobhaa De, who made writing accessible and glamorous; Arundhati Roy, who made it respectable and aspirational; and Chetan Bhagat, who has shown that writing can be a lucrative career option too — provided you become another Chetan Bhagat.

So, coming back to my Hindi teacher — an elegant lady called Mrs. Goyal: one morning she asked us to write an essay on a subject that I now forget. We all wrote furiously for the next 45 minutes and submitted our notebooks. The next morning, she returned with the notebooks and, after berating us for the overall poor performance and lecturing us on the craft of essay-writing, announced that she was going to read out the worst essay of the lot.

The first two sentences sounded somewhat familiar, but from the third sentence onwards I became certain that she was reading out my essay to the entire class. The girls I fancied were laughing too — and laughing hard. This was far worse than the teacher caning or slapping you, which was very common when I was in school.

The next morning I woke up at four. I sat upright in bed with my Hindi textbook. The cat that slept with me readjusted her position and coiled herself on my lap. In a faraway temple, bhajans were playing on the loudspeakers. It was during that magical hour I realised that all along I had merely stood on the banks of the river called Hindi literature, without letting my feet touch its waters, and that I now needed to wade into the river and take a dip.

Six months later, in the half-yearly exams, Mrs. Goyal gave me 65 out of 100. A sound knowledge of Hindi not only gave me a better understanding of Bengali, my mother tongue, but also of literature in general. I began to appreciate the written word.

And then I went on to become an English-language journalist.

Today, almost three decades after leaving school, I find myself overcome by a deep sense of regret of having never written in Hindi — or any Indian language for that matter. I feel like an illiterate man when I visit a bookstore in Calcutta and stare at the Bengali books, with some of the greatest names on their spines. I recently bought two Hindi novels, both celebrated works, but my eyes are now so used to the English script that I know I will never get around to reading them. And how I wish I could use my fountain pens to compose Urdu verses — I have always felt that Urdu and the fountain pen were made for each other.

I envy people — and they include many friends — who can write fluently in English as well as in Indian languages. Then there were men like Harivansh Rai Bachchan and Firaq Gorakhpuri, who taught English at universities but wrote in Hindi and Urdu. Then there is Gulzar, who continues to compose his poems in Urdu, sometimes with a Mont Blanc fountain pen, who can read and write in Bengali, and who is also fluent in Hindi and English. When I think of these men, I realise I have frittered away my life in trivial pursuits.

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Printable version | Feb 21, 2020 12:31:55 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/Through-the-language-glass/article15637091.ece

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