Hum, Tum, Aur Aap: Why the Insipid “You” Can Never Match the Intimacy of Hindi Pronouns

Culture

Hum, Tum, Aur Aap: Why the Insipid “You” Can Never Match the Intimacy of Hindi Pronouns

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

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couple of days ago, someone on my timeline tweeted about a dozen variations that the Hindi language has for the word “slap”. From the more sophisticated “thappad”, the Bambaiyya “kaan ke neeche” to the rather rustic “jhapad” and Eastern UP’s  very own “kantap”, it was an exhaustive, instructive list. What followed was a surreal commentary on the state of affairs in our country. The thread soon turned into an admiration club that declared Hindi as the “bestestest language in the world” simply because it offered such variety when it came to getting beaten up. And as things on social media pan out these days, it devolved in no time into Twitter’s version of the cat fight – people quarrelled over whose regional terminology for the slap was better.

Besides the disturbingly low level of discourse, the thread was a reminder of an essential truth: Hindi is not a single language. As ubiquitous as it is, Hindi has always had a staggering ability to adapt and evolve across cultural and geographical boundaries, and reflect the diversity of our strange, insane country in ways only it can.

I am a native Hindi speaker who belongs to what the election season coverage frequently refers to as “the Hindi belt” of the country. According to the newspapers, we’re also the “cow belt”. The image that these monikers convey is that of a homogeneous landmass, populated by people who speak the same language and nurture a strange obsession for the bovines in their backyard. Although, in reality, the “Hindi belt” is a complicated hybrid of several states, cultures, and dialects.

Hindi may seem like our one unifying thread. Yet it is anything but. In fact, our cows for all their inadvertent divisiveness, are a whole lot more alike than the way we speak. What is “jhakaas” in Mumbai morphs into something that is “bhaukal”’ in Lucknow. And even though both words sound like they can mean nothing good, they embody as effusive a praise as is possible in their respective regions.

“Tu” in Delhi sounds wholly different from a “tu” in Mumbai in ways that is hard to exactly pinpoint, but makes perfect sense.

People seeped in the homogeneity of English and its pervading usage of “you” may rarely notice the gravitas that pronouns can lend to a language. And in Hindi, pronouns define more than people: They define regions, cultures, levels of civility, and even intimacy.

“I wonder why he always calls me ‘tum’. It feels like my husband is talking to me,” a friend whined about a male batchmate when we were still freshers in law school. The batchmate in question, was from Bhopal, and his default pronoun, in true Bhopali ways, was “tum”. Her bewilderment while hilarious, wasn’t misplaced. She was from Delhi, the city where “tum” is an alien word that belongs to old-school Hindi movies and strictly formal settings. Dilliwalas, with their borrowed Haryanvi ruggedness, are hard pressed to slip into “tu” – their idea of intimate friendliness and casual conversations. So over the years, I learnt to segregate regions based on how they employ their “tum” and “aap”’. “Tu” in Delhi sounds wholly different from a “tu” in Mumbai in ways that is hard to exactly pinpoint, but makes perfect sense. In Madhya Pradesh “tum” has a warmth that is very different from Rajasthan. The pronouns of the Rajasthani folk always carry the weight of their specific dialect.

While we Hindi bashi take pride in our pronouns, for non-native Hindi speakers, pronouns are the nemesis. Even then they serve as a proof of identity. The gender confusion Bengalis tend to have is absolutely unique as is the peculiar sharpness of “tu” among Marathi speakers. The latter has always made my mother wonder if Maharashtrians are always in the mood to pick a fight. The broken South Indian take on Hindi may not seem too nuanced, but my rendezvous with Hyderabad introduced me to a version immortalised by the legendary Mehmood. It was a version that I stumbled upon when I interacted with autowallahs in Hyderabad and realised that “Tumhi jaata hai”, was a legitimate Hindi sentence in at least one part of this country.

My fascination with these various “Hindis” is rooted in personal angst. I was born in MP, in the same town as Phoolan Devi and inherited the Bundelkhandi lilt from my mother’s side of the family. I spent my childhood in the hills and for the longest time, “You sound like a Pahadi”, was a constant refrain. Then we moved homes, and I found myself in Uttar Pradesh, and a state of confusion followed: I became a UPite who did not sound like anyone from UP.

Instead, my linguistic identity was shaped by the words that felt like home.

Over the years, my pronunciations evolved. My Hindi had a strange mix of UP’s lazy drawl, Bundelkhand’s sharp tone, and an uptight throw that was a trademark of Pahadi Khadi Boli. It was distressing, because my confounding linguistic identity meant that I didn’t belong anywhere. Irrespective of where I went, I didn’t sound like them.

It didn’t help that I didn’t know how to commit to Hindi, having always failed to find a facet of my own mother tongue that I could truly call my own. “How many of you are coming,” a friend half-jokingly asked once when I accidentally slipped into the age-old Lakhnawi habit and referred to myself as “hum”– a plural pronoun in most parts of the country. It wasn’t the first time someone had joked about my usage of the word instead of the straightforward “main”. But my “hum” borrows the same grandeur that translates into Lakhnawai tehzeeb or politeness where even an abuse is accompanied by a rather respectful “aap”. 

Over the years, my time away from Lucknow helped me arrive at a place that eased some of my confusion: I realised that my identity wasn’t something that I needed to decipher in words that weren’t my own. Instead, my linguistic identity was shaped by the words that felt like home. And what made me feel home was the comfort of slipping into “hum” and the warmth of our faux Nawabi legacy. My language didn’t need to blend in, it just had to find me.

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