'Comb', 'Kanghi' and 'Kakahi': Navigating English, Hindi and Bhojpuri as an Author

Three generations learning three languages: the author with her mother and her children.

Not being a master of any one language may not be a completely hopeless situation after all.

Three generations learning three languages: the author with her mother and her children.

I was born and raised in a Bhojpuri-speaking family. Even now, my father still speaks to us in Bhojpuri and no other language. He did not want his children to be the first generation to completely lose touch with their mother tongue.

Bhikhari Thakur, Bihari playwright and lyricist, born Saran district, Bihar, (1887 – 1971). Credit: Wikipedia.

So he told us about Bhikhari Thakur and read out Gorakh Pandey’s poems to us, who were his heroes. Much before Indian Ocean composed a song using Gorakh Pandey’s Hille le Jhakjhor Duniya, my father had made me learn that poem by heart.

A language of dehatis?

My father would also encourage us to spend time with his uncle, Prabhunath Ojha, who was then a renowned Bhojpuri poet. Ojha Baba’s satirical poems may have been profound, but his language and the puns he constructed barely made any sense to me then. My Bhojpuri was largely colloquial and I could not process it as a language of literary merit.

Bhojpuri remained a language of dadi and nani for me – a regressive and crass language of unsophisticated and uneducated dehatis, a language meant for cheap songs and tacky cinema. At a very young age, we had internalised the idea that Bhojpuri was not the language of our time. Therefore, it was not the language to learn, master or be proud of.

Subhadra Kumari Chauhan (1904 – 1948), Hindi poet, born Allahabad. Credit: Wikipedia.

Hindi was the language of my childhood. My mother was the first revolutionary parent within the wider family who spoke to her kids in chaste Hindi and asked them to recite the works of Ramdhari Singh ‘Dinkar’ and Subhadra Kumari Chauhan aloud. Despite staying in a village until her marriage, she was progressive enough to foresee that English, and not Hindi, would be the language of aspirations and big-ticket dreams.

As a child I was sent to a Hindi-medium school, while my younger brothers went to English-medium schools. Unperturbed by my aggressive rebellion against this gross discrimination, my mother continued to force all three of us to learn both Hindi and English despite her own limited knowledge of English language and literature.

My first trilingual teacher

But my mother closely monitored our Bhojpuri as well, becoming my first trilingual teacher.

Between ‘comb’, ‘kanghi’ and ‘kakahi’; ‘plate’, ‘thaali’ and ‘tharia,’ and ‘here’, ‘yehaan’ and ‘hene’ my mother introduced us to the grammar and syntax of all three languages in everyday conversation. I think her own regret of not knowing English drove her to this inventiveness.

Sometimes encouraged, and often forced, by my mother, I was studying every subject often in both Hindi and English. I was not doing anything heroic. Most of the kids of my generation, or at least the ones who aspired to step out of their smaller worlds to achieve bigger goals, were doing the same.

Being multilingual, and having literary flair

The first institute to teach ‘spoken English’ opened in the late 1980s in Ranchi, the small town where I was growing up. By the mid-1990s, several such institutes had mushroomed all over the place and we had started to receive our steady diet of English through Baywatch and The Bold and the Beautiful.

Kadambini magazine, December 2014 edition. Credit: Wikipedia.

The slightly upwardly mobile families from the Hindi hinterland were effortlessly raising a bilingual generation. While we subscribed to Saptaahik Hindustan, Dharmyug and Kadambini, we also read Target and Reader’s Digest religiously.

That zeal to read and learn, and later write, in both Hindi and English didn’t end there. Even when I was a student of Hindi literature in college, and then at university, I didn’t stop writing in English. Unlike my course mates, my first job was with an English news portal, and not with a Hindi newspaper or news channel.

But I do understand that while learning to become a bilingual (or multilingual) speaker is a skill, to have a literary flair in two or more languages is a talent. While I think and write effortlessly in Hindi, I struggle with intricate metaphoric thinking in English – an inherent talent much needed to turn a language into a literary piece of any worth.

I also have to confess here that even though I am a published writer in Hindi, I have not yet achieved the standard of being a Hindi author with a capital ‘A’  –  that is, someone with certain authority and mastery over the language. And yet, if I had to write this piece in Hindi, I would have taken exactly 15 minutes to put forth my true feelings (read: frustrations) on being a bilingual writer.

After attempting multiple drafts of this one piece, I have also arrived at this conclusion that I do not fully belong to any language.

Navigating a world of multiple languages

I still consider Bhojpuri to be my mother tongue.

Bhojpuri has now become poetry for me – that musical language of nostalgia and selfless love, which transports me out my ambitious city life to an extraordinarily peaceful realm where easily forgettable moments are miraculously converted into memories to cherish. Bhojpuri is the language that makes me believe that a language can infuse the world around you with childlike innocence, truth and beauty.

I am slowly becoming a memory collector of Bhojpuri. Right from my nani’s geet that she wrote and composed in Bhojpuri to the delightful stories my rickshaw-wala recounts while pedalling us down to the neighbourhood market, I am trying to commit everything possible to memory.

As for English, after several years of practice, I have somehow learnt to rearrange my thinking, perceptions and my expressions in a language that has largely been self-taught. But it ends at writing a couple thousand words in English in a single effort. That is the horizon of my writing in English.

Hindi as a language knows me better that I know myself. Hindi sparks insights and reflects my deepest feelings more intimately and confidently than words in other languages can express. My Hindi writing is fairly simple. It has no complex magic. But while writing in Hindi, I do know for sure that the words and thoughts that are becoming a part of the structure enclose an intimate space.

I have managed to discover myself better in Hindi. Hindi has allowed me the joy of articulating the mysteries and understanding the inexplicable silences that a language, by itself, cannot express. When I write in Hindi, I touch my own wordlessness through a gathering of day-to-day words I normally use with my parents, children and my closest friends. I would not call myself a master of Hindi, but it is the language that best expresses me to myself.

Teaching multilingualism: The author’s father with his grandson.

Not being a master of any one language may not be a completely hopeless situation after all. In fact, it is far from it. Not belonging entirely to any of these two – or three – languages has given me the choice of not only avoiding clichés of language, but also clichés of thoughts and feelings associated with that particular language. That is not a bad advantage for being a speaker, listener and author of neither this nor that.

Anu Singh Choudhary is a documentary filmmaker, freelance journalist and communications consultant. She has written two books, Neela Scarf, and Mamma ki Diary, both in Hindi, and received the Ramnath Goenka Award for Excellence in Journalism and the LAADLI Media and Advertising Awards for her gender sensitive reporting.