Hindi and the land of the heart

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These heart-warming anecdotes show that it is entirely possible to make human connections without knowing the local language, which is what language is meant to do in the first place.

If you want to truly know a person, don’t talk to them. Gaze into their eyes.

As the draft National Education Policy reignited the chronic controversy over imposition of Hindi in non-Hindi-speaking States, I waited for the topic to get off the headlines before deciding to share my experience of having lived in Delhi and Gurgaon for more than 12 years with very little knowledge of Hindi.

At the outset, a couple of disclaimers —

1. My Hindi vocabulary is quite pitiful. I am neither proud nor ashamed of this.

2. Leaning more than one or two languages can hugely helpful.

I came to Delhi in 2007 with very little Hindi, but I was able to navigate with the help of my ‘dedicated call centre’. I had a list of three friends (all from Southern States) who are conversant in Hindi and each was available at different times of the day, so it was a 24x7 operation, with a call success rate of over 95%. So, if I needed to say something to a shopkeeper, I would phone a friend and he or she would talk on my behalf and get my things done. This service came in most handy during my visits to the neighbourhood vegetable vendor.

My strategy was this: I would greet them, and my first (and only) sentence, in Hindi, would be, “Please forgive me I don’t know Hindi”. Believe me, when said honestly, this is the greatest icebreaker. Almost everyone would respond positively and try to help me. I can’t recall a single instance where a vendor asked me why I didn’t know Hindi (what’s more, for some reason, all vendors think that not being able to talk in Hindi means you are better educated and so, sort of, give additional respect).

In my neighbourhood, I would ‘strike up conversations’ with the watchman, the car washer, people who came home to help me with cooking and upkeep of the house, the vegetable vendor, the handyman. This has been my habit wherever I lived (five cities so far). I would understand close to nothing of what they were saying, but look into their eyes as they told their tales and spend those few minutes with them. I guess they too knew I understood little, but often there is a person-to-person connect that doesn’t require a language. It’s called empathy, not just from me but from them also. If I sensed a serious need, I would contact my call centre to get the story right and offer some help. I can say now that no one has cheated me so far.

After a year or so, I got a job in one of the business dailies operating out of India’s Fleet Street, the only time I headed a team as a journalist. And I was a disaster. Exited the job as fast as I came. It lasted for 14 months, if I am not wrong. I didn’t have a car, not having a funds surplus to afford one at that time. So, I would travel by bus or autorickshaw.

Try getting into an auto at around 8.30 p.m. or 9 p.m. from ITO to Green park ten years back. Sometimes, I have waited for more than 30 minutes before sighting one. It was during one of those late evenings that I met an autorickshaw driver from Bihar. He was nearly six feel tall, well-built and knew very little English. By this time, my repertoire of Hindi words had improved. On the very first trip, he took a liking to me and offered to ferry me anytime I wanted. He could be anywhere — all I had to do is call him 30 minutes in advance and he would appear at the office. He wouldn’t charge me extra, and yet he kept coming whenever I called. The journey took 30-40 minutes, and we would talk constantly.


Language is just a tool for verbal communication. Let that not be a barrier when it comes to engaging with the people around us — the invisible crowd.


Weeks and months passed by, and I came to know of his life story, of his struggle to provide for his family of four, with parents living in Bihar. The auto was not owned by him, and he had to pay ₹400 per day (if my memory is correct) and fuel would cost him another ₹150 per day. He couldn’t take a penny back home unless he earned more than ₹550 on a day. It is not easy to earn that much for an autorickshaw driver.

Even when he fell sick and couldn’t drive the auto, he still had to pay the daily rent to the owner. Minor repairs to the auto were his responsibility. It was a life of struggle, and the biggest cost for him was waiting at CNG filling stations. I forget the size of a CNG tank in an auto, but he had to fill up at least twice a day in order to earn ₹800. This is a problem for Uber and Ola drivers too, who have to stand in queue at least twice a day at CNG stations. CNG might be a great idea to save the environment, but auto-drivers had to wait at least 15 minutes each time to fill their tank — a significant opportunity cost for them. Imagine if you or I had to wait that long to fill petrol during our working hours; there would be a huge hue and cry. When my parents visited me, it was this auto-driver who took them to different places when I was not able to take a break from work.

Till today, I don’t know why he was so singularly generous with me despite his circumstances. He never asked for any money other what I paid him for the trips. After a few months, my dad/sister sent their Maruti Alto to Delhi, and gradually I lost touch with him. I changed jobs, lost my mobile and his number. I only wish that he is doing well in his life.

Language is important for communication, and no one can dispute that. But it is not the only thing and isn’t even required most of the time — we live in silos; the only time we meet someone who is not like us is when we travel by call taxis. At all other times, we ignore people who are not fortunate like us — the people who keep our offices and homes clean, the workers who pick up our garbage, the security, and even ‘under-performers’ in our team. These are people waiting to be touched by the knowledge and money we have. It won’t cost us much. Believe me — striking an honest and genuine conversation with common citizens would give you the biggest satisfaction. I don’t know how the auto-driver or the handyman in my neighbourhood benefitted from talking to me, but I was blessed with those interactions. I am richer for knowing their life stories and hopefully one day I can do something about it.

Language is just a verbal communication tool. Let that not be a barrier when it comes to engaging with the people around us — the invisible crowd. My dedicated call centre is still operational, except that I don’t use the service. But it's open for business.

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