This article appeared in the July 21, 2022 edition of the Monitor Daily.

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Why my Hindi was a bit strange

Waseem Khan/Reuters
Reena Varma, a 92-year-old Indian citizen born in Pakistan, walks with locals along a street while visiting her ancestral home after 75 years, in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, July 20, 2022.

During my stint in India for the Monitor, there was always a place at the kitchen table for Harilal. He was my Hindi teacher, and my wife and I still smile when we trade stories about him – ever gracious, always passionate about language, and delighted by my then-1-year-old daughter.

But the Hindi he taught was a little different. When we used it to hire a tuk-tuk or order a kebab in Delhi, we’d get strange looks. Your Hindi is too formal, they’d always say. It was a mystery. Why was he teaching us seemingly outdated Hindi?

The mystery was solved on my first trip to Pakistan. There, the cab driver turned to me with an astonished expression and exclaimed, “Your Urdu is excellent!” 

Harilal, after all, was born in what is now Pakistan and came to India during partition, when one country was ripped in two along religious lines. My mystery was just one tiny example of how entwined the two counties are, linguistically, historically, and socially – and how traumatic the separation was, displacing more than 10 million people. 

Partition happened 75 years ago, and I thought back to Harilal as I read one of the many remembrances being published about partition this summer. The NPR report told of Ishar Das Arora, who, like Harilal, had left his birthplace in Pakistan for India as a boy and never returned. 

In a twist, Mr. Das Arora’s grandson managed to get into Pakistan, and with a map scribbled from his grandfather’s memory, he found the village and recorded his discoveries in a 3D video format. So earlier this year, Mr. Das Arora went back to his hometown virtually – seeing the houses in the old Hindu section and even the grandson of someone who helped his family escape 75 years ago. 

“My school is still there,” he said. “And the hills where my voice used to echo.”

This summer, as I remember the awful history of partition, I also like to think of Harilal and the gift of Hindi lessons that made the subcontinent’s deepest division feel a bit smaller.  

This article appeared in the July 21, 2022 edition of the Monitor Daily.

Read 07/21 edition
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