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Bhasha, boli and me: Turning street-wise in apni Dilli

Bengali by birth, wanderer at heart, Abhirup Dam learns a lesson or two about the differences between language and dialect when he is bidden to speak only in Hindi for a week.

Abhirup Dam  28th Dec 2013

Illustration: Rashmi Gupta | Dev Kabir Malik design

have always liked to think of myself as a picaro — a rogue adventurer leading an itinerant life, relying only on badinage to survive in an uncompromising world. "Good for you," you might say, "I have always liked to think of myself as the Queen of Sheba, so what?" Of course it's no big deal; one can think oneself to be anything, imagination cannot be censored. But stating this at the outset is important in the context of what I am about to relate here. You see, I have actually taken this self-imagining somewhat seriously my whole life; or tried my best to stick to it, even if it was a negotiated attempt. Striking camp has been a recurrent phenomenon in the last seven years and here I am at the end of another year, having lived in two different cities, neither of which are my hometown.

In this great Tower of Babel nation of ours where languages are more abundant than drinking water, stepping out of your linguistic habitat is a prerequisite for leading a peripatetic life. One could rely on what a formidably wise man once said — "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." But I have always found it hard to be thus aphoristic. Hence the picaro-me always tried to learn to confer in a new tongue whenever the need arose. I can safely say that I have managed pretty well. So far.

I moved to Delhi three years ago. It was an easy linguistic transition. Delhi speaks the hegemonic language of our country, Hindi. Being my third language in school, Hindi is something I have learnt to read and write. But when it comes to speaking (still), situations sometime take up comic proportions. My conversations with friends, colleagues and acquaintances in this city are largely composed of English. And like any other good ol' Bengali, I do exhibit certain flair in mispronouncing and mixing up genders. But it's not that I don't converse in Hindi. I mean it's not only friends and colleagues that you speak with everyday, and I was under the general impression that I have done quite a neat job. So when a few of my lovely well-wishers decided that I should perseveringly stick to speaking in shudh Hindi as a New Year's resolution, I found myself in a parochial imposition. Nevertheless I thought it might be a good exercise in brushing up my skills. Let me admit unabashedly, it was a disaster. I found myself often logging on to Google translate or looking up online English to Hindi dictionaries. Asking your colleague for her duurbhash yantra to make a call, when your cellphone runs out of battery, is equally silly and unnecessary.

I realised that whenever I was consciously talking in Hindi, especially when it came to people I am used to conversing in English with, a somewhat clinical, put-on, formal Hindi took over.

t wasn't fun and I was definitely nowhere close to augmenting my Hindi speaking skills. It was then that I thought that some related distractions are in order. A friendly torrent site and a few hours of dedicated downloading and I was armed with episodes of Zabaan Sambhalke. I fondly remember watching this late 90s Indian version of Mind Your Language as a kid. The show involved a language classroom with a vexed teacher and a bunch of nutjob students, all trying to learn Hindi. This rediscovery was perhaps one of the best things that happened during this time. I also finally read Francessca Orsini's fascinating book The Hindi Public Sphere 1920-1940: Language and Literature in the Age of Nationalism, which documents the rise of an lexicalised and institutionalised linguistic entity called Hindi, and which produced a public sphere that dominated much of the nationalist movement. I read about the camp languages, of dialects, khari boli that got subsumed; the views that claim that there cannot be any distinctions between Hindi and Urdu and armed myself with an entire arsenal of theories relating to language politics. All but the speaking bit. There was no hope, and definitely no redemption.

Yet curiously I realised that whenever I was consciously talking in Hindi, especially when it came to people I am used to conversing in English with, a somewhat clinical, put-on, formal Hindi took over. However, no such thing happened while giving directions to the auto driver or bargaining for vegetables at the local mandi. The internalised language of everyday exchange was way different from the mindful language of practised conversations. It seems my Hindi is of the streets, and hence spoken best on streets. So it is there I return to with my Hindi, with the poet Kabir as counsel, whose not-so-contemporary-Hindi dohas have always kept me company.

Kabira khada bazar mein mange sabki khair,
Na kahu se dosti na kahu se bair.

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