Now, the National Language is not my mother tongue! But having lived in the northern and eastern part of the country during the formative years of my life, I speak it more fluently than my own mother tongue. For my father however, this language has always been a challenge!
Appa’s introduction to Hindi was during his late twenties when he joined the Indian Railways. Armed with his engineering degree and charged with the passion of participating in the process of nation building he readily agreed to being posted in Bilaspur ( then in Madhaya Pradesh). But when he got on to the Grand Trunk Express, at Chennai central in 1960, he realized that working north of the Vindhyas was not going to be easy! Appa told us many years later about this journey- when his co passenger on the train told him that he was going till “Hazrat Nizamuddin”, Appa’s first impression of the word was of a “soda bottle opening”!
Life at Bilaspur for my parents was an idyllic one but for the fact that Appa realized that he had to learn Hindi- not just the speaking bit but also to read and write as that was part of his job requirement. In fact, I think he had to pass number of internal exams. A brilliant engineer who always topped his class, Appa now found that he was among the “not so brilliant” set of students! My mother who was familiar with Sanskrit tried to coach him in the initial days! But Appa had problems in transferring the language rules from Sanskrit to Hindi because he was not familiar with Sanskrit either! Though as a Tam Brahm he had learnt his shlokas but unfortunately, having learnt them orally, he had never associated them with the written form! When I was about eight years old, Amma transferred her responsibility of teaching her husband , Hindi to me. I remember the way we both wrestled with a lesson called “Abu Khan ki Bakri” for one of Appa’s Hindi exams! Appa, used to say during our lessons together that it might be better if we were to sit on a bullock cart and do them, considering that there were so many “Hai”s that were there- “at least the cart would move” he used to joke!
Moving to West Bengal in the 1970s brought in additional problems in Appa’s Hindi comprehension abilities. In the small town in north 24 Parganas, where he was posted the only language that was spoken was Bangla and some Hindi of the Bihari variety ( “ek tho, do tho” types). Added to this were his new Bengali pals whose Hindi was equally bad – between all of them they killed this beautiful language. Every case ending would end with the masculine and Hindi would be liberally sprinkled with Bengali words! While the Bengali gentlemen managed to kill one language- Appa killed two- Hindi and Bangla! But the second murder is another story…
Appa’s posting in the Railway Board, made it necessary for him to be familiar with Hindi versions of the Government Orders. In an effort to help him with the translation, I found my Hindi skills improving dramatically! Between the two of us we used to consult a thick – Hindi- English dictionary. Appa also suggested that we both listen to AIR’s Hindi news between 8.00-8.10 AM! I still remember the “beep beep” sounds and Devki Nandan Pandey saying in his deep baritone voice “Yeh Akashvani hai…”! I tried to introduce my father to Hindi film music thinking it would help. But it had some hilarious consequences.
“Banda parwar, tham lo jigar…” was turned by Appa into “ Vanda varuval”( “May be she will come”- as impromptu adaptation in his mother tongue -Tamil).A fan of Nazia Hasan, Appa used to sing her hit song from Qurbani “Aap jaisa koi meri zindagi mein aaye to baat ban jaye” as “Aap Jaisa koi meri zindagi mein aaye to BAAP ban jaye” giving it an entirely new meaning!!!!
Appa used to constantly threaten to come to school and discuss my Hindi marks with my Hindi teacher in Hindi. He felt that I deserved more than the 60% marks that she doled out to me ( but Mrs Goela, my Hindi teacher was a Sanskrit scholar from the Benaras Hindu University, her standards were therefore entirely different!!!). I used to plead with him not to! Finally he made a compromise saying that he would discuss it but in English- thank god for small mercies! My Hindi teacher incidentally, was very impressed with Appa’s interest in my marks. She made a mention of it in class saying that if the daughter were as interested as the father in her marks she would top in Hindi. If only she knew….!!!
When Appa got transferred to Hyderabad, he was given an additional charge- “Rajbhasha Adhikari” ( National language officer). Apparently it was a policy decision of the Indian Railways to appoint all officers whose mother tongue was not Hindi as “Rajbhasha Adhikaris” in a bid to promote role models. With the additional charge came an additional headache- he had to propagate the language within his office! He used to ask me every day for a new word which he used to copy down and ask someone in his office to write on a public blackboard. By this time in his life, his Hindi resource person was his younger daughter – my sister!
I remember a hilarious incident when he was Additional Divisional Railway Manager in Hubli Division of the South Central Railway. He was presiding over the Hindi week celebrations and as the “Rajbhasha Adhikari” had to give a Keynote address in Hindi . Between myself and my sister, we had prepared what we considered a “superb speech” for him! We made him read it out aloud and were reasonably confident that he could pull it off!
We accompanied him to the function and were sitting with him. Someone announced from the stage requesting his presence on the dais. Appa went up on to the stage graciously. There were some speeches and then about a minute before the speaker before him finished up, we realized that Appa had left his speech behind with us. We tried to signal to him but he was busy pretending to listen to the speaker.. who concluded his speech by requesting the “Rajbhasha Adhikari” to deliver his key note speech. The Adhikari just then realized that he did not have that paper with the speech on him. But Appa, being the confident man that he is did not bat an eyelid. He went up to the podium and started speaking extempore!!! To say that we were amused would be an understatement. My sister and I laughed till our sides ached and till people in the audience started noticing these silent paroxysms of laughter ( they probably thought that both Mr. Sundararajan’s daughters were simultaneously having epileptic fits) . Appa got down from the stage looking very pleased with himself – “not bad was it?” he asked beaming at us after soaking up the applause” ! Poor man, we did not have the heart to tell him otherwise!
As he grew older his loss of hearing added to his problems with his Hindi comprehension. There used to be a song from a film called “Zamane ko dikhana hai” which went like this “Bolo bolo kuchh to bolo”. This song was playing on Chitrahaar one day. Appa suddenly looked up from his files and sat through the entire song watching it with great interest. Once it was over he commented “ But where are the dogs?” Dogs? “Well isn’t she singing – bolo bolo kutton bolo”? he asked innocently. Poor Majrooh Sultanpuri Saheb.. would have committed suicide had he heard my father that day!
Despite all his trials at mastering the language, I have never heard my father say anything negative about it. In fact, he used to love some words in Hindi ( “Kadi Mehnat”-hard work being one) . His curious mind used to often ask information oriented questions about the language and its roots. He used to be very fond of a poem by Bhartendu Harishchandra which was in my Hindi text book “ Nij bhasha to Ahai sab unnati ki mool, bin nij bhasha gyan ke mitat na hiye kosool ‘( the knowledge of one’s own language is the basis for all development). Not just Hindi, he always encouraged us to learn all the languages that were spoken in the different places we have lived in. His quest for knowledge made him rise above the language based politics of his times.
After fifty years of service in the Indian Railways, when Appa retired, a person who had worked under him gifted him with a lovely plaque which has in Hindi, some beautiful words describing him –each of those words begin with an alphabet in my father’s name. It also has a realistic pencil sketch of my father. My father was so touched by it that his eyes filled up with tears. This plaque hangs in his living room today- a reminder about a South Indian gentleman’s efforts at mastering a language alien to him!