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Hari Paatar and the Study of Hindi

If you want to learn a language, I always say, the best way is simply to pretend, as soon as you can, that you know it. Start off with the indispensable month or two of study and drill, to get some elementary grammar and vocabulary under your belt, and then take the plunge: read it, speak it, listen to its media, start conversations in it. And what should you do when it gets too overwhelming to struggle along in a language you've only been studying for a couple of months? Cheat, of course! Watch movies with subtitles. Read children's books and comic books with simple language and lots of pictures. If you can't say what you mean in conversation, then instead mean something you're able to say. (For a while after I'd studied the Hindi future tense but hadn't yet learned the past tenses, whenever someone in our house asked me at the dinner table what I'd done today, I'd just say "I don't remember" and go on to talk about what I was planning to do tomorrow.) After all, if you keep putting off really participating in the language until you feel confident you've mastered it, you'll most likely never get there.

By the same token, you should read books translated from ones you're already familiar with. So when I was looking for some sustained Hindi reading comprehension practice, what better choice than the celebrated "Je. Ke. Rolimg"'s tale of the boy wizard and the "Paaras Patthar" or "Touchstone Gem"? I'm reading it slower than I've probably read any recreational book since I was about four, but it's fun. Actually, one of the biggest stumbling blocks is spotting all the transliterated English which is so rife in colloquial Hindi! When you've been studying it as an Indian language, it's a little disconcerting to hit a sentence like "Mistar Darsli Granimgs naam ki kampani ke dayrectar the, jo dril banaati thi." ("Kampani? Kampani?...Oh, company.") I'm still working my way through Chapter One ("The Boy Who Saved Alive"), but fortunately I already know how it comes out. (I'm told that the twentysomething Delhi crowd jokingly calls these the "Hari Putr" books, punning on the Punjabi word "putr" for "son". So "Hari Putr" is "son of Hari" which is a name of Shiva, so Harry Potter is the son of Shiva, namely the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh,* and I'll leave the theological implications of that for others to work out.)

So slowly slowly we make progress; I'm still not anywhere near truly fluent in Hindi, but I can pretty much read what I need to read and carry on a conversation without having to have every sentence rephrased more than once or twice. I was pleased to find that although I could follow only about one-quarter of the dialogue in last fall's big Bollywood blockbuster Kal Ho Na Ho, I was getting about two-thirds of it in this spring's big Bollywood blockbuster Main Hoon Na. Let's not inquire too closely whether this is because the MHN script has about 2.5 times as much English dialogue as the KHNH one. Could also have something to do with the fact that while KHNH is a talk-intensive slushy romantic melodrama, MHN is a "masala movie" with lots of dialogue-optional action scenes. (By the way, all you enviros who've been complaining about the lack of eco-friendly action movies---oh c'mon, sure you have---will enjoy Main Hoon Na for the scene where Shah Rukh Khan on a cycle-rickshaw is chasing the bad guys in an SUV. In the mandatory final collision the rickshaw gets the worst of it, of course (cf. NHTSA reports), but King Khan doesn't, of course.)

* Or Skanda, I suppose. Hey Indologists, would you say Harry Potter is a more appropriate avatar of Ganesha or of Skanda? Maybe we could organize a conference on this---why leave all the pop-culture studies to the English departments? (Oh right, I remember why. ;)

—— Kim Plofker
2004-05-14 02:46:07

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Created: 08 Oct 2003
Last modified: Oct 15, 2004 3:58:04 PM
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