After a month of Hindi lessons with Hari Lal Dhingra, I made my Hindi speaking debut at a friend’s house. Her father, a senior policeman in Mumbai, happens to be an extremely conservative man with strong family values. I was dining with my friend and her parents, when they asked me how my Hindi classes were going.
I turned to the father and proudly said, “Aap sherabi-kebabi hain!”
A stunned silence followed, until my friend quickly explained to her parents that I didn’t know what that meant. Needless to say, the rest of the dinner was slightly uncomfortable.
Later, she told me I had accused her father of being debauched.
Dhingra, my Hindi teacher, would have been horrified.
Before I moved to Delhi, I received a rather odd outpouring of generosity from my friends. I found myself in possession of two City of Djinns by William Dalrymple, one Maximum City by Suketu Mehta and four (yes, four) copies of Holy Cow by Sarah MacDonald. Obviously, people thought these would help ease my transition to the country. I laughed at the clichés that popped up: the crazy autorickshaw drivers, the cows in the street, the word “cacophony”.
While they’re great reads, I put most of the stories and characters down to a bit of journalistic licence and settled into my new life. Until I met Dhingra.
He was the spitting image of a character straight out of a foreign correspondent’s book about India. Mainly because he was actually a character straight out of a foreign correspondent’s book about India. He has appeared in two so far—Holy Cow and Inhaling the Mahatma by Christopher Kremmer.
Class apart: Barring Hindi, the students learn a lot from Hari Lal Dhingra. ( Photo by Vineet Sabharwal)
Plus, Dhingra may also be blamed for the many similarities in foreign correspondents’ writings. Dalrymple’s first Hindi teacher? Dhingra. The BBC, Financial Times, Time magazine, and Reuters correspondents? Dhingra taught them all.
Dhingra was born in Pakistan in 1931 and migrated to Dehradun at the age of 16. He studied law, but after a year of work, the bureaucracy bored him. He had met a few Christian missionaries, who asked for help with their Hindi, and he fell in love with teaching, and set out for Delhi to make it in the big city. Every journalist or diplomat student of his who left India passed on his name to the new ones.
“Hari Lal exists entirely on a chain of word-of-mouth recommendations. He used to hang out at the Reuters office and I had some friends at Reuters who told me about him,” says Dalrymple.
Dhingra will show you his extensive clientele list. He’ll pull out a thin black notebook, flip through the pages filled with cramped writing and start reading off the roster of names. Not in a boastful way, just in a slightly proud, “I-can-teach-Hindi” way.
Dhingra loves his job because he gets to explain his heritage, his country and his rules to interesting, interested students. To me, his job is amazing because his ideas make their way back into the ethos of much of the contemporary writing about India in the Western world. My mother and her book club in California know India through Holy Cow. And the author was influenced by Dhingra. His audience spreads much beyond his classroom.
Unfortunately, no one ever seems to learn much Hindi from Dhingra. At least, not the Hindi we can use on Delhi streets—or around Mumbai police officers. He never so much as mentioned the existence of the tum form to me and I haven’t been invited back to dinner since the unfortunate sherabi-kebabi incident.
MacDonald wrote in her book that when she suggested to Dhingra that she learn a few colloquial terms, he reacted violently: “He pulls himself up to his full height of four feet ten and sharply and sternly states, ‘Madam, please…We will not speak like filth. I will not talk like that. I absolutely refuse.”
She writes: “As Hari Lal stuck to his principles, fewer and fewer students stuck with him. He’s a relic of a forgotten India, a gentle, congenial land of courtly poets, and he’s slightly lost in the increasingly crude and brutal present. I keep having lessons to protect him from the world and because I like his company.”
Christopher Kremmer agrees. In his book, Inhaling the Mahatma, he describes him as, “This gentlemanly creature, relic of a bygone era of humanities and languages, when knowledge was not entirely technical and people still had time for each other.”
From my point of view, I stuck with Hari Lal because he’s exactly that key into genteel Indian history that I won’t find in my rude landlord or my young, carefree friends.
I remember it was 10am. I wasn’t exactly sure what I had been doing for the past 3 hours, but ever since I arrived at the office that morning, I hadn’t stopped rushing around. The phone rang and the office security guard told me that my Hindi teacher had arrived for my first lesson. I looked at the list of things to do before noon and decided that an hour spent configuring verbs in Hindi had to take a backseat. I asked the guard to make excuses on my behalf, paid the class fee and hurried back to my work.
At 1pm, I got another call. “Mr Dhingra is still waiting, ma’am.”
“I thought I said to tell him I couldn’t come today!”
“I did, but he said he would wait until you were free.”
I hurried over to the reception, and there he was—a small, wizened man in a worn sweater vest, perched on the edge of a giant leather chair. He looked out of place, but he stood straight up and stared at me calmly, and said: “I did not have another class until 4. I thought, I came all this way, you paid for the class, you should be learning, so I waited.”
It’s hard to argue with his logic.
For the next hour or two, we sipped chai and learnt a few Hindi words. But before we could even make it through an entire page of words, we invariably ended up discussing the prayer habits of Muslims; the history of partition; the etymology of the word “preponed”; and the origins of the Sikh festival, Maghi.
His words stumbled out—he talks extremely fast for a teacher—in a thin, low voice, and he jumped from one idea to another. He also piled on the compliments: “You have such a nice voice. Even if you can’t speak Hindi, you have such a happy, kind voice.”
After three months, we agreed that my Hindi wasn’t improving. I couldn’t keep asking my company to pay for my chai breaks with Dhingra, although he did have a lot to teach me.
Sure, I can’t speak much Hindi. But the classes were definitely worth it.