My Hindi-Medium Father

Social Commentary

My Hindi-Medium Father

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

In the film Hindi Medium there’s a monologue in clipped English. Doting parents Irrfan Khan and Saba Qamar nod politely, not comprehending a word of what’s going on. Then the two burst into applause at the alien sounds of a language they don’t know, but know will be their daughter Pia’s ticket to a “hi-fi” class. About 20 years ago, I was little Pia.

When I was five, my parents bundled me on to their rickety second-hand Bajaj scooter and took me to a first-class English-medium convent school, replete with German nuns, Western classical music lessons dispensed through a grand piano, and children who would address each other as “buddy”. I remember feeling out of place and tugging at my tightly buttoned collar – when I looked up and saw that my father was doing the same thing.

The subsequent interview with Sister ColonialHangoverName, the principal of the intimidating institution, was two questions long. She quizzed me about my favourite poems and hobbies. I remember telling her that my favourite poem is “Machli Jal Ki Rani Hai” because I loved making fishies with my fingers and my hobby was climbing trees. She found my desi leanings less than adequate for a school modelled on a British viceroy’s guidelines for elegant living and I was rejected.

I didn’t care about my rejection too much. The enormity of English as a construct in my life hadn’t settled in at five. All I cared about was that I wouldn’t get the cycle my father had promised me, if I made it. The outcome of the interview, however, weighed heavily on my father.

My father speaks only in Hindi, but my mother is fluent in English. My father was never taught how to speak English, because he spent his formative years in Hindi-medium government schools. But besides his fluency in a particular language, here is what you should know about my father: He is physically intimidating, six feet tall, athletic, with a baritone that makes Amitabh Bachchan sound shrill.

My father should have no reason for insecurities just because English has evaded him. And yet he is.

He is an accomplished surgeon with a sizeable practice, who is sought out by people all over UP and respected in his circles for his technique and bedside manner. His patients look up to him and recommend him to everybody. He is the mild-mannered doctor who spends time listening to your ailments instead of brushing your queries aside, who will charge you close to nothing if you cannot afford to pay him, who will wake up at 3 am to attend to you if you’re under his care. He is a clear winner both professionally and personally.

My father should have no reason for insecurities just because English has evaded him. And yet he is. He is embarrassed of his thoughts because he cannot express them in the “right” language; he gets awkward when he mispronounces words because people laugh at him. My father has been shy all his life, but even as a five-year-old, I saw him speaking less and less frequently in company.

Make no mistake. My father understands English very well, so there was no fooling him when I spoke to my high-school sweetheart in English and tried to pass it off as a call from my girlfriends. He can quote lines from Jayshankar Prasad poems that he read in passing several decades ago, but he cannot follow the dialogues of Titanic without subtitles. He has spent a massive portion of his life poring over books that were written by Western authors for Western doctors and comprehended them alone with the help of a dictionary and his friends. But my father cannot speak English and because of this this one central flaw in an otherwise flawless design, my father’s dreams, for me, his firstborn and receptacle of all his unfulfilled ambition, lay in mastery over the language.

After the failed first round of interviews, my father bought me the cycle anyway and he taught me to ride it the same day, only so I could tell people about my new, less embarrassing hobby. For two months, I was prepped for the second round of admissions in the same school, set to the soundtrack of my mother’s frequent breakdowns over the What Ifs of the situation in case I didn’t make it again.

When the time for the second interview came and the inevitable question on favourite poem followed, I said “Hot Cross Buns”. My favourite hobby became reading, gittak phod became seven stones, and jalebi became dessert. From there on began my proselytisation into a Marquez-reading, quiche-eating elitist who doesn’t have to Google farrago.

My father, who himself doesn’t enjoy these things, celebrates my grasp on this plethora of pointless subject matter. What he brushes under the carpet is all the things we don’t share anymore, because I picked the English-medium lifestyle but he resolutely stuck to his Hindi medium one. I have not read the books he has, I don’t laugh from my stomach at Kapil Sharma’s jokes, I don’t eat jalebi every Sunday like I used to. To grow into another language, I unwittingly outgrew my own father.

Which is why a film like Hindi Medium hits me in the gut. It takes me back to the start. It seems to lay bare the intent with which earnest Indian parents push their children into English-medium schools, hoping to create better, fuller human beings. It is a win-some, lose-some game we play with life, with no side being better off for it.

The bottom line I guess is that our parents love us so unconditionally that we owe it to them to become the people they want us to be. It doesn’t matter that the people you first wanted to become was them. Sometimes, in being someone else, you work off a little bit of your debt to them.