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Chennai says it in Hindi

Fourteen-year-old Swati Ramanan has a new literary crush: Munshi Premchand.

Written by V Shoba |
August 14, 2011 4:34:28 am

In a city once bitterly opposed to the northerner’s tongue,Hindi is finding followers — private tutors give lessons in apartment complexes,and young enthusiasts gingerly try Kabir on their tongue. Even auto drivers will not snarl at you if you speak in Hindi

Fourteen-year-old Swati Ramanan has a new literary crush: Munshi Premchand. “The first story by Premchand that I read and loved was Idgah. That must have been six months ago,” she says in English,before self-consciously switching to somewhat accented Hindi. “Main ab unki ek aur kahani padh rahi hun,‘Bade Bhaisahab’ (I am now reading another story of his,called ‘Elder Brother’),” she says shyly.

Swati lives on the seventh floor of a tall apartment complex in Kodambakkam,Chennai. Like any teenager,she likes Katy Perry,Harry Potter and skinny jeans. Of late,she has been scarfing up Hindi books that her parents — both work in the IT industry — buy her on their trips to Delhi and Mumbai. In her room is a green felt board with a few Hindi dohas pinned on it alongside cartoon cutouts. They flutter in the evening breeze as Swati talks about her passion for a language far removed from her native tongue Tamil. It all started with snatches of Hindi news overheard from her neighbour’s radio. “It sounded so elegant,” says Swati,pausing to rummage for the Hindi word for ‘elegant’. “I knew I had to learn to speak and write like that.”

Swati attends a reputed CBSE school not far from her home. Hindi is her third language of choice, after English and her mother tongue,Tamil. “My friends opted for Sanskrit and French because you can get better grades that way,” she says. But Swati’s mother,Ananya,takes a broader view. “I have lived in Mumbai for two years. Hindi is necessary if you want to move to other states. People living in south India are increasingly aware of this,” says the 44-year-old,who watches Star Plus and Zee TV to help polish her Hindi. “We enjoy watching Hindi stand-up comedy — there is no equivalent of this on Tamil TV,” she says.

It has been a full decade since the last anti-Hindi agitation in Chennai. The self-professed guardians of Tamil culture haven’t vanished. Indeed,not too long ago,English signboards on some railway routes were smudged off in an act of Tamil pride,says a resident of Tambaram suburb. S Doraiswamy,a retired executive who has lived in Thyagaraya Nagar,Chennai,for close to two decades,says common English words are increasingly being translated into forbidding Tamil — for instance,some bakeries call themselves veduppagam (literally,a cooking room). “There are two sets of people in Chennai today. Those who go out of their way to introduce new ways of asserting the Tamil spirit; and the middle and upper middle classes who want to learn Hindi and to make sure their children don’t miss the Hindi bus,” says Doraiswamy.

With the Tamil Nadu Uniform System of School Education Act integrating state and matriculation boards,besides others,set to come into force,there is worry that the Hindi bus may no longer make a stop in Tamil Nadu. Till now,in schools following matriculation and other boards,Hindi had been an optional third language. “Under the new system,students can choose from Arabic,Urdu,Malayalam,Sanskrit,French and various Indian and foreign languages as their third language,but not Hindi. A majority of schools in Tamil Nadu will be forced to adopt this syllabus. To study Hindi,you’d have to go to a CBSE school now or turn to options outside the system,” says V Balakrishna,who runs Hindi Vidya Niketan,a centre for Hindi learning,in T Nagar.

Balakrishna sits in a small makeshift room on Dandapani Street. The signboard pointing up is in English and Tamil. “According to state law,the regional language font size should be bigger than the English font. And writing in Hindi is like inviting trouble,” says Balakrishna,seated in front of a blackboard crammed with Hindi verbs. A Hindi teacher in Chennai since 1988,Balakrishna coaches adults and children —for a nominal fee of Rs 150 a month — in written and spoken Hindi. He also prepares students for various certificate courses offered by the Dakshina Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha,an institution that dates back to the pre-Independence era. The Sabha now has 18,000 certified pracharaks in Chennai alone,6,000 of whom actively teach. Says Balakrishna,a Sabha member,“There is no overt political opposition to Hindi in Chennai anymore. Whatever indirect measures,such as samacheer kalvi (uniform education) and the two-language curriculum,are introduced,they are mere political stunts.”

Kevin and Manova Jacob,who are studying for the Sabha’s Hindi Parichaya (introductory course) exam at Balakrishna’s academy,agree. “It is important to know the national language,” says Kevin. For the mathematics graduate,Hindi is a conduit to north India,where he and his brother hope to find suitable jobs. They can’t speak fluent Hindi yet but hope to be able to preach the Bible in Hindi one day.

In February 2011,about 50,000 people in Tamil Nadu — 13,000 from Chennai alone — appeared for the Prathamik-level Sabha examinations,with over 95 per cent passing. Two years ago,the number was 43,000. Inter-state mobility and the trend of job-hopping are key reasons for the increase in interest in Hindi,says Balakrishnan. “The IT industry is partly responsible for this,” he says. Sreenivas,a 58-year-old student at Hindi Vidya Niketan,says he realised the importance of Hindi over a decade ago but could only find time to learn it closer to his retirement. “I have lived all my life in Chennai because I don’t know any other language. But I made sure my daughters studied for Hindi exams even though they couldn’t study the language in their school,which followed the state board curriculum,” he says.

There is a visible cultural dilation on Chennai streets,once famously protective of all things Tamil. Five years ago,Arumugam,a 55-year-old auto driver from Ambattur,would have told you off if you asked him for directions in Hindi. Today,he parks his auto on the bustling North Usman Road and calls out to people: Kahan jaana hai? (Where do you want to go?) “It helps to know basic Hindi — kitna (how much),kam (it’s not enough),dur (far),aa jao (come),” says Arumugam.

Hindi has helped not only autowallahs but also ministers clinch deals,says CNV Annamalai,general secretary of the Sabha in Chennai,and member of a central government advisory committee under the Ministry of Rural Development. “I have always said,Mr Karunanidhi would have been PM long ago if only he had known Hindi. His daughter does,though. She was a Sabha student,” says Annamalai,in faultless Hindi. “There is a lot of demand for Hindi in south India. In a year,six lakh people from the four southern states appear for Sabha exams,” he says,adding,“Studying Hindi does not mean ignoring Tamil.”

On Thanikachalam Road,R Krushnamurthy,a Hindi bookseller,says the demand for exam guides is slowly rising,but that of Hindi novels and reference books is not. “I started selling books in 1990. In 1996-97,I was selling 10,000 copies of exam guides,some of them self-published. Now the number has more than doubled,” he says,adding,“There is a Hindi teacher in every apartment complex in Chennai,seriously.” Balakrishnan laughs and nods. “Theruvellaam Hindi muzhakkam (the cries of Hindi in every street),” he jokes.

Those who cater to corporates believe there is a greater demand for spoken Hindi. Rajan Menon,of Language Tree in Virugambakkam,says,“With IT migration,there is interest in spoken Hindi like never before. We conduct 25-day workshops where we teach communication-based Hindi. There are many takers.” Knowledge of Hindi is no longer an unimportant qualification in the job market,says Anoop S.,a senior manager with a pharmaceuticals company in Chennai. “Yes,English is the first language of industry,but what if you are posted in Lucknow?” says Anoop,who hired a private Hindi tutor for three months last year.

For Swati,the grounds for learning a new language are more poetic. She points to one of her favourite couplets by Kabir: Dheere dheere re mana,dheere sab kuchh hoye; Mali seenche sau ghara,ritu aaye phal hoye (Slowly slowly O mind,everything happens at its own pace; The gardener may water with a hundred buckets,the fruit only comes with the season). That pretty much sums up the Hindi wave in Chennai.

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