(First appeared in the New Indian Express, October 16, 2013)
In an otherwise happy school life in rural Kerala in the 1960’s, my gravest dread was not snakes or ghosts, but Hindi. Text books presented it as rows of clotheslines, on which hung squiggly shapes. Staring at them, the pages would turn dismal black, pockmarked by bright yellow-rimmed white circles – the exact colours of stage fright. I came to recognise in Hindi the only real threat to my passing my exams. I was relieved to bid adieu to my nemesis by scoring 50% in my School finals.
When I was in college, the anti-Hindi agitation reared its head. Schools and colleges were closed and I left my hostel and headed for my village. Next morning, at the school ground, there was a large anti-Hindi rally. I joined the crowd and got near the stage. Before I knew, I was on stage, being introduced as a student leader from the city college. I spoke passionately and received flattering applause. After a while, my friends told me that the Police were looking for the college student. I vamoosed and the same day left my village. That is the closest I ever got to an encounter with the law.
After a few years, studies took me to Indore for a two year stay. On Friday nights, hiding rupee notes inside our socks, a group of us would pedal on hired cycles to the City’s movie houses. There I was introduced to Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore whispering romantic nothings and lip syncing amorous songs. That was adorable Hindi penned by wordsmiths like Anand Bakshi, gift wrapped sonorously by the likes of S D Burman. I found myself humming those tunes. (Btw, MEA should actively promote films exports to China as Track 3 diplomacy. Ideally, Hindi films shot in India’s North East region.)
My jobs then took me to different cities where, with no compulsions either way, Hindi became my language of choice for uninhibited camaraderie. Switching to Hindi meant instant comfort – the mental equivalent of getting rid of the tie and the shoes and slipping into T shirt and pyjamas. It has stayed so ever since. At the same time, my heart swells with pride as I recall my small part – not forgetting Thiru Mu Karunanidhi’s – in the anti-Hindi agitation which ensured that India became the world’s back office. So that, sitting in Bangalore and Gurgaon call centres, our English-speaking youngsters can study circuit diagrams and guide Mrs Smith in a Hampshire hamlet to the main switch she forgot to switch on after returning home from a family vacation.
At Kumarakom, in God’s Own Country, on a shared houseboat ride I met and made friends with a group of five from Delhi. At some stage I told them in Hindi about the anti-Hindi protests and how English and BPOs were giving jobs to our youngsters. Soon I detected a coldness. “How can any Indian not like Hindi”, asked one, with childlike sincerity and indignation. It was genuine. Like the mutual disbelief across the spiritual divide, between the believer and the rationalist.
Meanwhile, socialists-turned- bourgeoisie Malayalees now aaram se speak in Hindi to their new labour/tenant/customer group: the masons from 24 Parganas and their assistants from Burdwan who build Kerala’s houses, larger now with steeply appreciated Dirhams and Dinars.