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Hindi mania

Foreigners are willing to pay a handsome price to learn Hindi, not always out of the love for the language

You don’t have to be a nationalist of the RSS kind to realise that the world is taking a growing interest in India and its culture, as a stable market with promising economic prospects. One of the most profound indications of this fact is the growing number of expatriates of varied backgrounds from various parts of the globe making a bee-line to India, some specifically to learn the Hindi language.

Mind you, these are not the usual suspects, nirvana seekers freshly out of college or academics conducting research on Indian mystics or translating the Vedas. On the contrary, these youngsters could belong to an influential business family of UAE or Qatar; or technocrats and professionals from Japan and Korea, or government functionaries from the US or various European countries.

“A language is not just words. It’s a culture, a tradition, a unification of a community. It’s all embodied in a language,” as Noam Chomsky—American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist and political activist—puts it. This business of language has thrown open an interesting melting pot of cultural assimilation.

Take, for example, Zubaan, one of the best language schools for Hindi and Urdu, which has some 150 expats of diverse backgrounds enrolled in its main branch at Kailash Colony. It’s run and founded by an Indian-origin American, Ali Taqi, 40, who has singularly taught some 20,000 hours of Hindi-Urdu courses to hundreds of expats. Ali’s parents migrated to the US from Hyderabad. In the early 1970s, he grew up as a native English speaker. At the age of 18, he decided to learn his parents’ native language. In a few years, he was proficient in Hindi and Urdu — this helped him “understand my parents better” as some “missing links” were bridged.

Learning Hindi was a life changing experience for Ali, who decided to open a language school in India. For the last nine years, he has tirelessly worked to create Zubaan and has never gone back to the US even once. “I don’t have time,” he says.  When he’s not teaching, goes to a gym, spends quality time with his family: his wife, Neha Tiwari, co-founder of Zubaan, and their six-year-old son.

“English is my native language and Hindi and Urdu is a job,” he clarifies. Zubaan has some 14 classrooms in a spacious facility, tastefully done. He’s designed the furniture himself, there’s an air purifier in every room, provides a healthy environment for learning. Zubaan offers organic vegetarian lunch to its students, many of them are hanging around honing their Hindi.

One his oldest students is 46-year-old David, a serving officer in the US Navy. It’s a job requirement as well a passion. He’s in India for three weeks for “abhyaas” or practice, as there aren’t many opportunities back home to converse in Hindi. He speaks pure Hindi with a certain pride. He’s taking all this trouble to contribute towards a friendly relationship between the two great democracies of the world, he explains in Hindi. He’s an alumnus of JNU, did his Masters in International Relations a few years back.

It’s challenging for Ali to teach Hindi and Urdu to students from UAE and Qatar for they aren’t proficient in English either. “I perform a dual role, tutor them in English while they learn Urdu and Hindi.” There are aspects of the language that are tricky, the finer points of usage and grammar, which for natives it happens fairly intuitively. For others these n​itty-gritties have to be learned one by one, layer by layer.

Ali feels that the fact that he is a “hybrid” helps. It takes a foreigner to teach a native language to a foreigner because he’s put himself through the mill. The best books on how to learn Hindi as a second language are written by Englishmen, like the one by imperial officer RS McGregor from colonial times.

This reporter attended an Urdu class where three young men from UAE were present: Md Alameri, 21, Md Alkaapi, 19 and Mohsen Mansoori, 19. These young men with friendly dispositions live in Vasant Vihar, are here for four months to learn Hindi-Urdu. Ever year some 1,000 young men are sent abroad to learn various languages, they explain, wherein India is a major destination. Many also go to Pakistan to learn Pashto and Punjabi, London for English and Paris for French. They don’t get to opt for a language of their choice. The reason for swarming India to learn the native language is to manage the burgeoning Indian working class back home in their countries. They carry snacks in tiffin boxes, offered the best dates I have ever had with some coffee. They move around in the city on swanky SUVs and enjoy themselves when they are not learning Hindi.

Many Korean and Japanese companies encourage their employee, whether posted in India or not, to learn Hindi, for lot of investment is going to come to India. It’s important for companies like Samsung to understand the cultural ethos, it helps them design products best suited to the local needs and formulate a winning marketing strategy.

Julia, a journalist from Sweden, is considered an expert on Indian matters in her country. She has written a critically acclaimed book on feminism and sexuality. “Language is such an important tool,” she says, as she switches over to Hindi for the rest of the conversation. Ali inspired her to learn the Devanagari script, assuring her it’s not tough. “It was just a mental block,” agrees Julia, who’s fascinated with India and its people, cuisine, society – and intellectual discussions, albeit they, more often than not, end up in an argument.

She wants to experience India without filters, but it isn’t always a pleasant experience. Recently, when she was strolling in Pushkar, some men bawled at her, “Gori madarchod.” She turned around and asked in a level tone, “Kya boltey ho?” They melted away in embarrassment. She asserts that there’s a growing interest in Hindi which “wasn’t the case 10 years ago. People all over the world want to understand India.”

Not just these private schools, universities too offer language courses but the quality leaves much to be desired. They are useful for expats who want to stay in India longer. It is convenient to enroll in a university Hindi course to dispense with recurring visa problems.

And then there’s an ensemble of private tutors for those who don’t want to use English as a medium to learn Hindi. Take the case of Marine Giraud, a French journalist. She arrived in Delhi three months ago and started learning Hindi soon after. She pays Rs 1,200 per hour to an Indian who teaches her Hindi in French. Learning Hindi has made her life easier in Delhi. “People are a lot more accommodative if you start a conversation by saying ‘Namaste! Aap kaise hain?’” she says. Even the auto-rickshaw-wallah refrains from fleecing her. She doesn’t know how long she’ll be in India but learning Hindi “belongs so integrally to my Indian experience.”

If language is the road map of a culture, many expats are willing to go down that road, paying a handsome price to acquire the skill to speak Hindi.