Friday, January 9, 2009

Hindi and the City

Snapshots of my first experiences with the Hindi language.

When we arrived in Bombay for our film program, neither Zoe, Becky, or I could speak a lick of Hindi. We looked for lessons we could take together, but didn't get much help from our program coordinator finding a tutor. Our only lead, an online advertisement on, turned out to be far too expensive for anyone who wasn't on an expatriate package.

So every now and then we'd ask our daily handler, Mukesh, to teach us some phrases. I remember the first phrase he taught me was "khana kaya?" which meant "have you eaten?" He also taught me the word for "twenty" which was "biis". I learned twenty first because it seemed to be the most common denomination of rupees we used. Later, while passing time in a rick, he taught us to count from one to twenty.

After four weeks when our program was over and Zoe and Becky left back to their home countries, Hindi suddenly became much more important to my well-being. There was not a soul in the entire city who would care where I was or what happened to me; I was completely on my own.

Through the internet, I found housing at a women's hostel in another part of the city called Andheri. I'll never forget its name, "Asha Kiran". Most of the women living there were either young professionals from far-flung regions of India, or retired Aunties living without family.

I learned to say "cold water" quickly. A bottle of Aquafina or Bisleri in the hot 93 F Bombay weather was essential. And on my walks to places, I learned the words for "where is" from overhearing people asking the autowallahs for directions.

Hindi came ever so slowly through my only teachers, the rickshaw drivers. I first learned how to say "straight ahead" to them. One day as I was walking alongside the road, I learned how to say "stop" from overhearing a local person in another rick utter the phrase. Sometimes when I asked a rick drive to take me somewhere, he would burst out a phrase I couldn't understand. Eventually he would shake his head and drive away.

The children on the set of the Guerilla Flicks production spoke with me in Hindi, asking me my name and where I lived. I was able to respond back to them in Hindi with their help. To direct them, I used some Hindi that I learned on the spot listening to other directors on set. "Piiche! Piiche!" I would constantly say to them to keep them out of the frame.

But the little words I'd learned weren't enough. Until I could speak or convey that I understood Hindi, that I was an insider and not an outsider, the locals would always perceive me as fair game for the taking, which for some inexplicable reason, I felt to be a very dangerous thing. If you are not personally connected to the person who is doing business with you, the chances of Indian 'friends' working together to take advantage of the situation is almost certain.

Two months into my "independent" time in India, I entered a strange state where I could not leave my room for 3 days. I, who had traveled and lived with no fear for years in much of Asia! I could only lay in bed and fight an extremely intense desire to leave the country. And finally, I could no longer hide from my situation as a foreign woman living alone in Bombay. I went to the Crossword Bookstore at the InOrbit Mall in search of a Hindi language book. The book I found was called 'Colloquial Hindi' and I bought it because I remembered that it had been used by my university. I spent the next two days studying the book with a desperateness I had never known.

A week later, I reconnected with Gopi and other Bombay friends who'd come back to town. Gopi was nearly fluent in Hindi (at least to my ears) and whenever we rode in the rick together, I listened with intense and rapt attention to whatever she said to the autowallahs. Once, after she had been dropped off, I mimicked the sounds I had heard to the driver, "Signal se left karna."

and he understood.

That moment changed everything for me. It was the dawning of my empowerment, the moment I felt that I *could* make it in Bombay. That I could be the driver and not the driven (please excuse the obvious metaphor).

I came across a phrase in the Hindi book and it dawned on me what the autowallahs were saying to me those many times they would refuse me a ride. They were asking "malum hai?", which meant, "Do you know [the way there]?". They didn't know the way there themselves, so they were asking me! No wonder they drove off when I didn't respond. :)

My production manager began teaching me the meaning of phrases, especially one he'd say a lot which became my favorite, "aramse" ("take it easy", "relax").

And just when I felt that I could stay on a little longer, that I was finally taking control of my situation, the time had come to leave.