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!


  1. nice post meera.. really amusing!! keep writing :)

  2. Meera, this is one of the best post I have come across recently and you have penned it in such an unassuming manner that I can just admire!! Great work and look forward to your posts...

  3. Kudos to your dad's life long effort at mastering a language...
    Great narration by you.

  4. How about the Bijliwala story? You should have written that also!! Then what about 'gudas-vaar' (his version of ghudsavar - horseman) Good one! Yayy appa!

  5. Thanks Folks for the kind comments. @ Deepa I did think of the bijliwala story but there are so many that I just had to pick a few!

  6. Super!!! Your Dad was Raajbaasha adikari then? We used to attend compulsory Rajbasha meetings which were solely to eat up the marie biscuits and accompanying chaai! And as for the One Day one word- i tried to write a word everyday in my office until one day where my colleagues misunderstood the word THAALI and spelt me trouble! I was ragged almost half an hour before i could make them understand thaali meant plate and not the mangalsutra! We South Indians have taken the task of killing any language that comes within our reach, there was one gentleman who rushed up to the counter to ask when Kurla express arrives. It was spelled duly thus- "madam, gorilla express wppo varum?" LOL!!!

  7. those were some nice reminiscences..You know? I have this problem of stage fright. If it was me who went to podium without that paper, which is my only resort, I cant even imagine how would I have handled the situation..

  8. Well written and thoroughly enjoyable.The efforts to master Hindi is a common factor for many from the South - my dad too had to undergo similar trials & tribulations. He was in All India Radio and was posted to many towns and cities in North, East, central & Western India.Finally retired as Chief Engineer. Never quite mastered Hindi.

  9. He has been lucky in having your mom and you two sisters to help him in mastering the language.Thanks your humourously written post brought smile

  10. :-) he he..interesting read...

  11. @ Cloud Nine LOL... Gorilla express ! And dont think the South Indian kills other languages- we face stiff competition from Bengalis :-) @ Ramakrishnan thanks for the kind words. Rahul and Tomz happy that I could bring a smile to your faces

  12. This is really such a good story. I had to laugh loudly at "bolo bolo kutton bolo" :). Bittersweet! I am sure those who hear my broken Kannada must be laughing their heads off, but I keep trying. For me, it is reverse trying to learn Kannada and knowing only Hindi and English. I really loved this post of yours.

  13. Namaste....
    I enjoyed this story and what stood out to me is what i have always thought my children that not only do parent teach their children but children also teach their parents. I think your father is a wonderful man, very humble and open without pride to hinder his learning. You are very blessed to have this man in your life and such wonderful experiences. Not all of us have such a gift.

    Stay blessed and thank you for sharing.

  14. Learning a new language is always fun, especially for others. :-)

    Just wanted to point out that Hindi ia not "the" national language, it "a" national language, just like 15-16 others. It is also an official language, the other being English.

  15. @ that and this in mumbai- you are right. HIndi is a national language like many others - though it may be an official one. Emmy welcome back. @ Rhapsody Phoenix, yes I am indeed blessed. I have the best father in this world! Rachna sometimes my Tamil is as bad as my father's hindi :)Proves doesn't it, that what comes naturally is the language for communication

  16. Nice anecdotes of your father.My parents picked up Hindi during their postings to the North, and they had a flair for languages for the could speak quite well.
    In fact, when someone would come to see me, he would start talking to me in Hindi, as if those people cannot understand Hindi, I think basically he just wanted to show. Dads are always fun,and despite their imperfections they are always the best.
    I wish you had taken a picture of the plaque and posted it with this blog, which would be like honouring him. Well even now you can do it, as I am sure we all would like to see it.

  17. Loved reading it. While reading about his Hindi songs, laughed so much till tears came :)

  18. @Sunil Deepak I can just imagine that. We used to laugh like that too! @ Rama the picture hangs at my parents living room in Hyderabad. Next time I go to Hyderabad I will take a pic and upload!

  19. Wow...lovely post and I can relate to it.

    I have these experiences with my BANGALI parents. “Bahut achcha badboo waala chawal laaya tumhare uncle ne..” I found my Ma saying this to our domestic help at Ranchi!

    My f-i-l is very good at Hindi, so much so that we request him to say some words in English for us to understand. I shall write a post on him, inspired by your post.

    My f-i-l INTENTINALLY murders Hindi songs, given his command over language. So Vividh Bharti is Vidhawa Bharti and ‘ Yeh mera prem patra padhkar..’ is ‘Yeh mera prem-patra PHAADKAR..’

  20. This is something that I have loved reading it had me laughing and smiling at various places.

    Kudos and Hats off to your Appa,

    We dont have many people like him anymore, Nowadays there would probably be a union strike if someone was asked to work in hindi or any other language ..

    Reminds me of my grand-dad who was not very educated but Rose to a level where every Minister came asking for his help and His english was so emaculate , he was asked to give a lecture too ..

    its true People then worked so hard nowaday we dont.. Please do extend my regards to your Appa.

    and Thank you for sharing such enecdotes with us which are both hularious and something ot think about tooo :)


  21. @ Ani, Bengalis and South Indians are probably the only people in the country whose languages are not in some way direct adaptations of Hindi ( though Bangla is Sanskrit based unlike Tamil). So they gleefully "murder" the lang.
    @ Bikram thank you so much for your kind words. I am touched!

  22. That was such a beautiful post and it took me back to memory lane in a different sense too. I liked the last para most - about your dad being gifted a plaque that had hindi words and the letters matched to his name - that is such a priceless gift, a beautiful gesture. Keep writing like this and sharing these heart warming memories with us as well.


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