Big Gora Learns Hindi

Big Gora Learns Hindi

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Shuddh Hindi?

A few years ago, when I was just getting started learning Hindi, I started a Facebook page called "Hindi and Sanskrit Learners." The Sanskrit was there in the title because one very self-motivated grad student I knew wanted to learn it, and of course it's the mother of Hindi. I figured we could encourage and motivate each other.
I had no idea then about what I know now: to a certain conservative type, that combination of words--"Hindi and Sanskrit Learners"--signals a whole worldview in shorthand, one that I find repugnant.
Let me back up to where I first began getting inklings about this whole thing. There's a wonderful memoir called Dreaming in Hindi: Coming Awake in Another Language.



Katherine Russell Rich published this account in 2010. She describes moving to first one dinky backwater Indian town and then another and learning Hindi full-time, as a sort of extended timeout from life. If I could somehow take my wonderful wife, and our adorable pets with us, I'd love to do this myself. Rich says she became "near-fluent" in that time; she could completely understand any Bollywood film without subtitles. (Wow!) Each chapter contains a well-researched meditation on a related concept: how learning a second language influences our first; how adults learn vs. how children do; the relationship between Hindi and Urdu, and so on.
That last topic was introduced with a little anecdote. One day she took a bicycle rickshaw somewhere, and when she paid the driver, told him "शुक्रिया" [shukriya/thanks]. He glared and told her she should instead tell him "धन्यवाद" [dhanyavaad/thank you]. The former is considerably less formal, and therefore much more commonly used. An equivalent in English, as I understand it, might be something like "Thanks" vs. "I am grateful to you." His annoyance was at her use of an Arabic-root word rather than a Sanskritic one. Maybe an American equivalent would be expressing annoyance at someone for saying "Gracias," on the grounds that it's a "foreign word." To the driver, "shukriya" is a foreign word, "not Indian."
I did this reading a few years ago, and since then, I've learned more about this kind of Indian conservatism. There's a party, the BJP, that expresses the value of "India for Indians," meaning these "outside," "foreign" influences--American/Western values, Arabic/Urdu words, and religions other than Hinduism (especially Islam)--are simply not welcome. These "foreign" things "aren't really Indian."
The phrase used to describe this ideal as applied to language is "शुद्ध हिन्दी" [shuddh hindi/pure Hindi]. The phrase, and the attitude, has a lot in common with the sentiment expressed by, for example, the crowds of "real [white] Americans" currently screaming at buses full of desperate immigrant children. "Pure Hindi!" The attitude finds Bollywood Hindi, Muslim-influenced Hindi, impure, corrupt, not-Indian.
Back to my well-meaning Facebook page. To me, Hindi is Hindi. If it's in my dictionary and/or my Teach Yourself book, it's Hindi. I don't know (though now I'm starting to) whether a given word's roots are Sanskrit or Arabic; it's all new to me, all equally not-my-mother-tongue. Also, I consciously try to live an inclusive, tolerant attitude: a Hindu and a Muslim are equally my siblings. In fact, one of the reasons I love India and her culture so much is the frequently-expressed ideal of diversity.
About a year ago, I guess as a result of improved search capabilities on Facebook, some "shuddh Hindi" folks started joining the page. They thought because of my title, "Hindi and Sanskrit Learners," that I was one of them. Sanskritic Hindi only; away with those filthy Urdu words. More joined. One poster began encouraging members to join his other, "more Sanskritic" page instead. Then someone began posting, almost daily, subtly pro-Hindu (and anti-anything else) religious messages with old-fashioned Sanskritic wording. The page had become its own entity, one I didn't like or support now though I'd started it.
So I left it. Let the "shuddh Hindi" folks talk to each other without me.
The attitude makes me sad. I love all of India, all her languages, all her cultures, all her diversity, सब कुछ भारतिय [sab kuch bhaaratiy/everything Indian].

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