“Bro, Hindi Mein Bol Na!” What I Miss the Most in Hindi-Speaking Delhi is My Mother Tongue

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“Bro, Hindi Mein Bol Na!” What I Miss the Most in Hindi-Speaking Delhi is My Mother Tongue

Illustration: Aishwarya Nayak

I learned pretty early on that a strict routine is your best armour against homesickness when you move out. Which means that mornings in my PG begin with me ladling a very oily sabzi with an even oilier poori, and trying to decipher what the cook is gesticulating so wildly about. The first few times, I flinched at each Hindi word I couldn’t quite understand, and Amit Shah’s statement on Hindi Diwas — that Hindi was the language “that can tie the whole country in one thread” — only made me more restless. The outrage that erupted after caused him to backtrack, but as a Bengali who had just moved to Delhi, having to learn a new language to fit in had me wistful to my stomach. 

Every day in this city, surrounded by a communication I barely understand, made me feel like an outsider. The first few days were a nightmare. When my parents would call me from Kolkata, I would be so overjoyed to be caught up in the sudden flood of intelligible speech that I could barely speak.

Before moving to Delhi, I never thought language would be a sticking point. After all, I had basic fluency in Hindi, and there were plenty of Bengalis here. But I did not account for those who think only their version of Hindi is what the rest of the country was injected with as soon as they were born; those who’d mock me for getting “tu” and “tum” wrong, like a country of 1.2 billion people and more than 19,500 languages was preordained to speak one isolated strand of Hindi. I did not think I’d encounter acquaintances who would encroach the five minutes I’d steal with another girl from Kolkata to discuss home and demand, “Bro, Hindi mein bol na!” As someone who was rebuked back at home for speaking too much English and not enough Bangla, I never imagined what I’d miss the most is my mother tongue. 

The first friend I made here, alone in a strange city, was because I heard Rabindrosangeet drifting from a room in my PG.  If you’re in a new city, you’ll know what I am talking about — a familiar smell, sound, or sight sucker-punches you into missing home. So when I heard “Mono Mor Megher O Shongi” flowing out of a room that usually was closed, a dam of silence inside me broke. I stopped at her door with a plate full of greasy poha and said, “Tumi Bangali?” The girl was also from Kolkata, and we spoke for nearly three hours: of home and the pain of losing a language. She told me about typical Bengali rituals she had saved here in five years, like her clay pots for drinking tea, and the puchkawala at CR Park you must never go to, for it will break your heart with longing, making you miss home even more.  

I never realised how much of my identity lay in my language. Frankly, I took it for granted most of my life. I would get irritated when relatives responded to my questions in English with Bangla. And here I was listening to Bangla gaan, pining for a language I took so terribly for granted.

As someone who was rebuked back at home for speaking too much English and not enough Bangla, I never imagined what I’d miss the most is my mother tongue.

Fast-forward to a month later, I want to tell you all is grand. It’s not, but I’m adjusting to the city and the city to me. I sometimes slip into Hindi with my parents or friends back home out of habit, much to their horror. My eyes hurt from trying to decipher Devanagari signage quickly enough to not miss my Metro station; I panic whenever I cannot find English sign boards, but I’ve grown immune to mocking reactions when I speak my Bengali-accented Hindi. 

I am also learning to fight back. Sometimes I say “Achcha” instead of “Haan”, refusing to translate it in the stubbornness that only comes from sadness. I call all the PG helpers, security guards, and autowallahs “Dada” instead of “Bhaiyya”. My cousin who, as a longtime Delhi resident, is a probashi Bangali, started laughing that day when I called a bookshop owner “Dada”. But I refuse to budge out of that one small act of resistance. I use the common root of Hindi and Bangla words to understand the language being spoken, I teach my friends the Bangla equivalent of Hindi words they think I need to know.

Delhi sometimes feels like a sponge that absorbs all the cultures of all the ethnic and religious groups that are drawn here by the myth of India. And sometimes it feels unwelcoming. Over the months, I have learned, times when you belong, you add instead of assimilate. For instance, I have a friend here who sometimes stands along with my two friends from Kolkata, hearing our conversations peppered with Bangla, patiently trying to understand the words she isn’t familiar with. For every Hindi word I learn from her, she picks a Bangla from me. Sometimes I go into complete tirades in my mother tongue, she waits patiently, and then we laugh and try to come to the closest translation. 

I write this from the runway at Indira Gandhi Airport, waiting for my flight to carry me to Kolkata, decked up and bursting with excitement for Pujo, and I know soon I’ll be flooded with the sounds of home. But deep inside, I know I’ve already found one here. And it speaks more than one language. No matter what they say.

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