Land of a thousand tongues
Make my mind somersault
Flounder in new codes
Fish afloat a sea of sun
A sea of sound
I live on the surface
Reflected on a distinct spectrum
With the world aloud, anew
In Hindi, Kal means today and yesterday. Verbs come at the end of sentences. There are no articles.
I left the river and headed to Allahabad, a small Indian city of 2,000,000 people, to live with a Hindi Tutor, Ruchir Maheshwari and his family.
Each day Ruchir and I had a Hindi lesson for two or three hours. Outside of class time, I got to read, write, and recover from time on the river. I also got to explore the city, a sacred place for Hindus, the point where the Yamuna and Ganges Rivers as well as the mythical Saraswati River meet at Triveni Sangam.
I stayed just ten days with Ruchir and his family, but the time was rich with learning. Ruchir gave me lessons via Skype before I arrived in India, so I had an introduction to the fundamentals of Hindi and his way of teaching. Over the days that I spent with him, we got deeper into the grammar, and we assembled basic sentences.
In addition to providing a lot of practical skills for communicating with people, learning Hindi reminded me of the richness of human capability. Devanagri, the Sanskrit writing system, provided me a window into an entirely new realm of linguistic history. At times I noticed similarities between Hindi and Spanish. I was propelled into the past as the Mughals invaded India bringing Urdu and Muslim influence, while modern day Mexico and New Mexico were invaded by the Spanish who brought a language influenced by Arabic. Though Urdu and Arabic come from separate linguistic families, Persian influenced both vocabularies.
In Hindi, orange is narangi; in Spanish, naranja.
Reminders that across time and distance unhinged from my perception, across the widest perceived difference, we are family by the flow of history.
In India, there are thousands of languages and dialects spoken today. Hindi and English are the dominant languages in Northern India, but Bengali, Rajistani, Tamil, Urdu, and many other languages are predominant in various reaches of the country. Each language is a sea of knowledge and history, maintaining its speakers through winds of life.
As I struggled through the packed language course with Ruchir, I realized more and more that while I was learning Hindi, living with him and his family had other equally important lessons to offer.
In the evenings, I played chess and watched films with his boys, Tanmay and Nalin. They acted as interpreters for Bollywood movies we watched, and I learned about their interests, how their studies work. During delicious meals prepared together by a hired cook and Pooja, Ruchir’s wife, I heard about their family values, of the strenuous Indian education system, and the will and work that Tanmay and Nalin have to muster to achieve good marks for hope of getting into the best schools.
I arrived just as the Indian government withdrew 500 and 1,000 rupee notes from circulation, causing turbulence for the public, especially poor farmers, shopkeepers, and laborers without bank accounts and little access to urban amenities. The decision was made to try and reduce India’s black economy and increase the tax base, but surely it had damaging effects for India’s innocent lower class who does not have the social or economic capital to pay with cards or net banking.
Ruchir expressed a sentiment that I heard from many people about the bold move by the government. He was impressed with the choice and seemed mostly calm about managing the tumultuous time with bank lines stretching into the hundreds and a serious lack of cash all over India. This was not everyone’s reaction of course, but on this topic and many others, Ruchir generously shared his ideologies with me, and helped me gain insight into society in Uttar Pradesh’s middle class that I had not had before.
One of the last nights I stayed with him, Ruchir took me to a singing group where the hosts hired a keyboardist and drummer, and guests took turns singing songs. Ruchir sang two beautiful tunes, and as I listened to around a dozen singers, I got the chance to reflect on my first few months in India. I hoped that for the sake of all the good people I had met along the first half of the Ganges, those with power could make as bold decisions about the environment as they had about the economy.
I recalled the walk I took to Triveni Sangam through Allahabad, past wedding parties and street parades, past the open drains of the old city, through the wide festival grounds in the riverbed where Mela’s, massive Hindu festivals, are held every year to honor the rivers. I recalled the boat ride I took with a kind, enterprising teenager running a boat to the confluence of the rivers, how we rowed together through the late afternoon light, watching the sun set over Allahabad Fort and the devotees bathing in the water where the black and green rivers meet. I recalled feeling lost in language and confused, and knowing that above all, wonder and ignorance are the best of friends.
Of seeing behind
The first impression
A compass upon my hand
The wonder pointing me forward
Two rivers on one plane
Lage raho, carry on,
I remind myself
Lage raho, carry on,
I remind myself