Most Indian children are eight years old when they start reading the Akbar and Birbal storybooks -- I was 24 years old when I started. As I strolled down the streets and sat at the chai shops in Mussoorie, one of India's northern hill stations, those who didn't know me would often look at me funny -- a full grown, bearded, well-dressed Indian man flipping through a stack of illustrated Hindi children's storybooks.
Besides being a popular summer tourist destination for Indians to escape the summer heat, Mussoorie is also the location of the Landour Language School, a well-known institution that teaches Hindi, Urdu and Sanskrit as second languages. I was carrying around the children's books as part of my homework. Like the other foreigners at the language school, I was in Landour to learn Hindi. But unlike most other students there, I was there to relearn what had been my first spoken language.
My parents raised me to speak Hindi as a child. But things changed when I started school. Early on, I remember a classroom atmosphere of condescension towards my Hindi language. I'm sure other schools were different, but that was most certainly the tone at my school. As I spent more time in that environment, I slowly began to lose Hindi fluency. Hindi eventually became a memory stored in the back of my mind. Like so many other children of immigrants in America, English became the only language I could speak fluently.
Language loss among immigrant cultures is a symptom of many forces operating together, but I believe the root cause lies with the ugly legacy of Imperialism. Eliminating the language of a culture was a primary strategy used by colonialists to fragment and control peoples. In India, the infamous Lord Macaulay introduced the English education system in order to create a class of Anglicized Indians that would be loyal administrators of British colonization. In the United States, Native Americans were taken from their tribes and placed in English schools where they were not allowed to speak their own language. The modern day language loss of so many immigrant children, like myself, shows that some element of that assimilationist attitude still exists in Western schools -- even if it's not as intentional or overt as before.
After I finished high school, I began studying politics at UC Berkeley. Driven by a desire to better understand my own ancestry, I focused on India and South Asia as much as I could. It was during this time that I became more and more committed to the idea that relearning my ancestral language was the key to understanding my ancestral culture. I had the feeling like something had been stripped from me in my childhood years -- my ability to speak with my own people in our own language -- and I wanted that back.
I first went to Landour Language School in 2006 at age 19. I was doing a half-year exchange program with the University of Delhi, and spending a month in Landour was part of the program. At the time, I could understand only very basic conversational Hindi, and I had no knowledge at all about the Devanagri script. I instantly fell in love with the language school and the Mussoorie Hill Station. The people greeted me with all the warmth of small town India. Unlike the capital city of Delhi, anyone you meet on the street in Landour greets you with a warm, "Namaste." I made many friends there.
After one month in Landour and six months at the University of Delhi, I became quite proficient in Hindi. What stayed with me the most were all the deep conversations I had with others in Hindi. I felt I could finally connect with my people on a different level -- like tuning in to a certain frequency.
After graduating from college, I still had the desire to learn even better Hindi. After working for a year, I was able to finance a trip back to Landour in 2010 at age 24. This time I stayed for nearly half a year. Namaste Rohit ji! The whole town of Landour and many in Mussoorie had come to know me. When I wasn't in class, I could be found flipping through my books at local shops, or chatting with some of the many friends I had made on my daily walks around town. I would always make it a point to have conversations every day in Hindi -- that was where the real learning took place. It's difficult for me to express how great it was to be there -- part of a real community. During this time when I was fully immersed in Hindi, even dreaming in Hindi, I felt how the rhythm of the language made the rhythm of my life different. Life was slower and more musical.
In the Hindi language, the words for tomorrow and yesterday are the same world: "kal." This reflects the Indian culture's cyclical view of time, in contrast to the Western conception of time as linear. Indian culture believes in rebirth, not only of people but of the universe itself. This understanding of the universe is conveyed through the very rhythm and tempo of the many languages of India. Just by speaking in Hindi, the very flow of existence is affected.
Language is like a programming for the mind -- it shapes our perception of ourselves and our world. It's a frequency that we can tune in to. As a community, I think the new generation of American-born Indians like myself would greatly benefit from connecting with their culture through language. It has been empowering for me. And I think it would be empowering for any American of immigrant ancestry to maintain this bond with their community.
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