How learning Hindi opened windows in place of locked doors.

 

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(C) Taken from ‘India Bazaar: Vintage Indian Graphics’ (Icons Series) – (paperback published 31 Oct 2003) by Kairi Jain, Samantha Harrison and Bari Kumar.

Living in another country makes it vital to build bridges instead of walls. In my case, I don’t think that my time in India would amount to half as much if it weren’t for learning words and phrases in Hindi. Actually, not just words and phrases, but how to read some of the Devanagari script too!

Unlike most of the other British Council TAs, I am placed alone, and in a girls’ hostel. This has motivated me to really persevere with picking up bits of vocab from the girls that live here. That, and the fact that living on your own, you need to find some sort of way to amuse yourself!

My Hindi is basic, I can’t write sentences or recognise most words. I can’t say more than a dozen phrases (and their negatives) and about thirty additional words. Yet the difference it’s made to my time here (both in the hostel and outside of it) has been enormous. Often, I hear people saying that I shouldn’t invest too much effort in learning Hindi as;

  • “everyone speaks English anyway”
  • “you’re only here for a few months”
  • “English is the language of business here and most educated people speak it”
  • “Hindi sounds like a difficult language – and when are you ever going to use it after this?”

Of course, there have also been those that have taken the time to encourage me, and teach me different phrases, as well as correcting my accent! For that I’m grateful, and here are just a few examples of times in which an understanding of Hindi has altered my experience of daily life here;

  1. Driving to Ranthambore from Jaipur and being able to read the names of the villages that we were passing through, which included “Moonpur” and “Goth” – so cool!
  2. Being able to ask our driver for the weekend the word for “sorry” after we couldn’t find him parked on a busy shopping street (it’s sharma, though there are several synonyms).
  3. Being able to actually converse with shopkeepers in Jaipur about their business, wish them Diwali mubarak ho!  (which convinced one stationer to try and present me with a free notebook) and get a far better deal than the other tourists by exclaiming “Uncle! Bahut mehengra” (“too expensive!”) until the price of anything was at least halved. This also had a practical side to it, if the friends that I was shopping with wanted to see something in a different size or colour, then I could ask for that too 🙂
  4. Replying to someone in my corridor with Dhanyavaad/धन्यवाद  rather than “thank-you” and receiving a smile and a high-five!

Of course I still make ridiculous mistakes when speaking Hindi. I’ve accidentally asked my boss “what are you?” instead of “how are you?” and misunderstood the question “how are you finding India?” for “how long have you been in India?”. I read words where I can’t tell whether certain segments are supposed to be “oo” or “ee”. Yet I can’t imagine how much more closed my life would be without my little grasp of Hindi. In the hostel it’s quite often the difference between a conversation and silence. I’ll continue to make mistakes, but through my efforts, I will be rewarded with gentle corrections (“it’s hoon not ho if you’re a woman”, a Jaipur clothes shop owner patiently explained) and a respect that leads to acceptance, if not complete understanding.

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The Long Walk To…my hostel room!

Meera naam – What’s in a name?

Indian Dream

 

Meera naam nikita hai

(मेरा नाम निकिता है)

It’s a simple enough start to any conversation, a polite way of introducing yourself. Had the above quote been said by an Indian woman, there would probably be little surprise, with Nikita being a relatively common name in India.

For that reason, when I say the aforementioned words, the reactions are more mixed. Is this blue-eyed, golden haired foreigner joking? Has she adopted an “Indian” name, because her own European name is too difficult for Indian people to pronounce? My friend at the hostel, Kyra, has found this issue particularly tiring, as her name is normally said like the name “Keira” or “Kira”, but here people always default to “Kie-rah”. The only way she has been able to get round this is by explaining that the correct pronunciation of her name is very similar to the Hindi word for cucumber – “kheera”. Cue a lot of laughter, as she not only attends Hospitality college here, but her surname, “Fikke”, bears resemblance to the Hindi word for “tasteless”, not a fantastic combination.

In that sense then I have been far luckier, more people here can spell my name correctly than in Britain (where extra hs, and es, or even the occasional additional k are added) and everyone can pronounce it. Kyra and I often laugh when we introduce ourselves to Indian people, as we pre-empt their reaction to each of our names.

The reaction of most Indian people to my name is the incredulous outburst “but that’s a Hindi name?”. They then usually insist on finding out how I got my name (especially important I guess because in traditional Indian culture, all names have literal meanings, and even the first letter of a child’s name might be deduced from the astrological calculations of a priest). My appearance normally rules out the idea of Indian heritage or ancestry, and people are quite disappointed by the reply “my parents just liked the name”. Names are virtually sacred here, so the idea that I might have just been given a name with a “nice sound” (or, in reality, from the 1993 French Film of the Year La Femme Nikita) seems unbelievable to a lot of people here. However, it does get people talking to me!

Our names inevitably change our travelling experience. Whether our name means something ridiculous in another culture, or is unheard of, or actually belongs to a culture that you are immediately judged to not be a part of. I haven’t bothered mentioning to people here that actually, Nikita is also a Russian boys’ name, and my name is also well known in eastern Europe – though as a masculine name.

Names are a crucial part of unlocking meaning in another culture. They represent not just changing tastes and fashions, but a lot about the more ancient heritage of a country. For example, when I tell people that my father’s name is “Paul”, those that have been given an education by Christian schools here respond “St. Paul!”. People then link the name with the Bible, and presume that my family must be quite religious, and that people in the UK are deliberately named for Biblical characters. Likewise, learning the meaning behind the Hindi names of my students has taught me a lot about Hinduism – “Manav”, named for the creator of the world, “Parvati” – one of the trinity of Hindu goddesses, alongside Lakshmi and Saraswati. Of course names can also be adopted for each gender, so “Lakshay” is a male derivative of Lakshmi.

For my own part, I like the fact that my name excites discussion wherever I am, in the UK it is seen as unusual, in eastern Europe it seems misplaced (as a female name) and in India it is a mystery – how did a European with seemingly no links to India end up with this name? Is it a sign of India’s increasing cultural capital in the world? Is it a colonial hang-over, another one of the things that the British stole from India? Regardless, it helps my own introduction to do exactly what any introduction should do – start a whole new conversation with a stranger.

The (high)Lights of Jaipur

At the end of last week I was finally able to visit Rajasthan, in particular the capital of Rajasthan, Jaipur. This is something that I’d wanted to do since I knew that I was coming to India, and it was well worth the wait!

Although marked on every tourist’s map as part of the ‘Golden Triangle’ of must-visit places in India (Delhi, Agra and Jaipur), Jaipur by no means loses its charm due to the presence of pockets of tourists (in fact, I enjoyed a great conversation about travelling with an older woman and her friend who were sitting in the Amber Fort…)

The main sites of the city are so spectacular that they attract many people from India itself, and it’s not hard to see why;

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Interior of the Hall of Public Audience, Jaipur City Palace

The buildings in the centre of Jaipur conform to the Mughal style of architecture that most tourists would associate with India, but, in a vibrant twist, most of the palace structures are the heart of the city are pink, hence the nickname of Jaipur – The Pink City.

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The Hawamahal, or Palace of the Wind – the outer wall features an elaborate screen by which the palace women were able to view street processions and the outside world via a series of elaborately meshed windows and cubby-holes. 

Ok, so the Hawamahal was probably a personal favourite, because I loved going up each storey and finding something different – a balcony here, some stained glass over there, and of course, an incredible view from the top floors, which allows you to see into the Jantar Mantar complex, and all the way up to the mountainside where the Nahargarh fort  is located.

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View from the battlements of the Nahargarh Fort, overlooking the city of Jaipur during Diwali. 

So here is where myself and my friends got completely enchanted by the city of Jaipur. We’d found out from some other friends, all fellow TAs on the same British Council programme as us, that you could go up to the Nahargarh fort at night and have a drink in a bar which was perched on the walls of the fort complex. The drive upwards was far steeper and on a worse road than I had envisaged, and I can’t imagine taking the same ride on a motorcycle or auto-rickshaw (though our driver gleefully told us that the mountainside road was actually in a far better condition than a few years previously, when a girl from New Zealand had been killed, along with the driver of the auto she was in, when it plummeted over the edge of a steep ridge – not exactly what we needed to hear in the dark!).

After a slightly spooky walk through the main gate of the fort, which is ruined in places, and then along a vaguely-lit track, we came to the bar which was much brighter, and looked down at the spectacularly illuminated city below. I’ve heard that the government actually pays for the Diwali lighting (maybe just for businesses and gov. buildings?) but I have no idea if that’s actually true. Either way, the view was even more breathtaking in person, and the lights were constantly dancing, accompanied by the constant bursting of fireworks and crackers. It was such an incredible way for us to experience the Festival of Lights for the first time. We ordered some drinks, sat back, and enjoyed the spectacle of a city which deserves its place on any traveller’s list.