So here they are at last, the blighters. I finally run into them. Of course, I knew I would sooner or later. And should the truth be known, it seems I’d actually encountered a couple already. But they were the more discreet ones, the ones you can inadvertently skirt your way around. These guys are the real deal – I speak of the unpronounceable sounds in Hindi.
I exaggerate of course. These sounds are not unpronounceable. In fact, my teacher (I have one now, more about her in a moment), told me my pronunciation was pretty good. But I can’t deceive myself, I know I haven’t nailed them yet. I’ve come across such stumbling blocks before – the Japanese “r”, also the Mandarin consonant written with an “r” in pinyin. Or the “ng” sound at the beginning of some words in Thai. None of these remained beyond my grasp, after a time, and hopefully the same will prove true of my new Hindi acquaintances. But who can say. These Hindi consonants are the fourth consonants of each group, and the difficulty is you have to expel some air from your throat as you say them. My teacher made me place two fingers at the base of my windpipe to get the right sensation. My friend Karthik, who runs the Urban Hermit’s restaurant here in Gokulam, (great food at reasonable prices), and speaks five languages perfectly, explained it as producing part of the sound with your mouth, and part of it with your throat. Or saying it with your mouth, but projecting the sound with the throat. These sounds, (“dha”, “bha,” “tha,” and so on,) aren’t spectacular. Should I master them, I won’t be able to show off, like my young South African friend Jade, who’ll obligingly rattle off a couple of Xhosa clicks for you when in the mood, but I’ll be happy to feel I’m saying words right.
But back to my teacher. I have a text book, Elementary Hindi, (by Richard Delacy and Sudha Josh, published by Tuttle), which seems very good. I got started fine with this alone. And I happen to feel that for most, perhaps all, learning processes, at least ninety percent of the work is self-study. You learn by yourself. But then there are questions, points that need explaining, opaque areas the teacher can shed light on in no time. There are those essentials we just can’t get without outside input. The key ten percent, quantitatively, which are qualitatively exponentially greater. (Like the time when, in downward dog, my yoga teacher adjusted my hips, and I found it eased discomfort I’d been having in my right elbow).
Mrs S. (actually Mrs. स, of course). is a charming little old lady, originally from Delhi. I believe she came down here to Mysore because of her husband’s employment, but he passed away a few years ago. She has a son in Canada, and a highly mobile daughter based in New Delhi, and appears to be happy here, in a quiet suburb of Mysore, with her live-in housekeeper and the latter’s daughter. Mrs S. tutors schoolchildren (her babies, as she calls them), after class, and when I pass them, fleetingly, as we come and go, they are invariably impeccably polite. Once, Mrs S. had inadvertently booked me, and a student with a Hindi language exam the next day, at the same time. I was perfectly happy to give way to this young girl, but both the girl and Mrs. S. were profusely apologetic for days afterwards.
Mrs S. is patient and gentle, her features are delicate, and her face seems hardly affected by time. But she has difficulty walking, and I spotted her out one night, leaning on the sturdy young shoulder of her housekeeper’s daughter. Her voice, lowered by age, is soft, and mildly hypnotic. When teaching, it is almost magnetic, and sucks you into the lesson, bringing time to a standstill. She speaks Hindi and English, but no Kannada., and I’ve wondered what it must feel like to live in your own country, yet unable to speak the local language.
During my last class, we were looking at personal pronouns. In Hindi, a plural “you” can be used for an individual, and thus indicates respect. Mrs S. explained “tu” was so informal it was rarely used nowadays, (a shame, because it sounded like the French “tu”, which was a good mnemonic), and that using “aab” was safest.
“If you say ‘aab’ to the auto man (rickshaw driver), or the dud-wallah (milkman), he will feel very nice,” she told me. She paused for a moment, as though not quite satisfied with her explanation. “He will feel” she added, breaking into a smile, “very elated.”
We came to the sentence, “Who are you?”I pointed out to Mrs S. that even with a polite “aab”, a blunt “who are you?” didn’t seem very polite. She agreed.
“So if a person comes to the door, and you don’t know them, you can just say, ‘I didn’t recognize you'”, she told me. And the way she said it, deliberate, but slow and benevolent, with that slight Indian wobble and tilt of the head, was quite disarming. I imagined going to someone with some unsatisfactory matter to settle, and being met with that, “I didn’t recognize you”. I thought it would no doubt take the wind out of my sails, and might actually make me feel quite nice. And you never know, perhaps even mildly elated.