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The High Road to Hindi

Indu will never be out of a job as our translator.

Our best efforts at learning Hindi might be thwarted by the short time we’ve allotted ourselves at the Landour Language school in Mussoorie. Located in Uttarakhand in northern India, it sits at 6500 feet; the altitude often pressing our lungs flat as we trudge up the hill to our class. Our wee attempt to sort out ‘kaise from kaisa, aapka from aapki, and kyaa from kahan’ and then make a sentence out of our new-found vocabulary has been both humorous and tedious for us. The patient, sweet-natured teachers often blow air into their cheeks to keep from telling us how silly we sound trying to produce nasal sounds but they also encourage us with the lovely word “shabash!” (well done!) We have another week of study and drills and then we’ll be off to Mumbai where we’ll have months of practice speaking in the community. We hope they’ll be ‘astounded’ by our enlarged vocabulary (that’s the easy part) but we still fear we won’t be able to add much to a conversation much less start one we can’t finish.

Choosing Mussoorie as a base for learning Hindi was easy. Snuggled into the foothills of the Himalayas, Mussoorie is known as Queen of Hill Stations. In 1823, a Brit who’d decided he’d had enough of the heat, moved up to the hills for the summer and others soon followed. Traces of that time are still evident in some of the architecture left behind and most notably there are a lot of churches. Although the town has suffered from crass over-development of hotels and their ugly electric signage with an eye to luring honeymooners and tourists, mostly from Delhi, the ethereal beauty of the area remains in the views of the forests of the Doon Valley. On a clear day, from a few vantage points, the majesty of the Himalayas appeals to the adventurer in everyone.

The Brits are long gone and the population now is a mix of exiled Tibetans, (the Dalai Lama settled here first after his exile from Tibet) Nepalis, Kashmiris and local Indian families. The main Mall road leading in to and out of town is lined with food vendors selling a mix of momos (Tibetan dumplings), roasted corn and omelettes and curiously there are numerous stalls selling espresso from tiny silver machines set on wooden stands inside doorways. The slap of dough being stretched between fast-moving palms then dropped into hot oil is heard every few feet. The giant puff of air-filled, crispy bread (bhatoora) is used to dip into spicychole (chick pea curry), found in many stalls up and down the street. Old men with creased faces the colour of roasted chestnuts wait on the street with baby strollers for tourists who pay them to push their young children up the hilly main Mall road. Kashmiris sell delicate embroidered shawls and bags beside woollen scarves and light-as-air pashminas.

Besides being a magnet for weekenders from Delhi, Mussoorie and its sister village of Landour are also home to many revered schools and institutions including the Landour Language School.

Our morning walk to the school is another 1000 feet of added altitude on switchback roads lined with monkeys resting before they take their next swing through the thick jungle of impressive trees. The views, sometimes obscured by wafting, ghostly clouds that stick in the branches of the oak, pine and deodar trees, is worth the 45 minute plod up the hill to the quiet hush of the classrooms in the old church building. In this quiet, serene setting the muffled voices of international students can be heard repeating verbs and post-positions in Hindi, Urdu, Sanskrit and Punjabi.

For us, investing some time to learn Hindi despite the fact that most people in the Saki Naki community speak a version of both Hindi and Marathi (the language of the state of Maharashtra where Mumbai is located) among other dialects, should prove very useful. Our mangled pronunciations and misuse of words will no doubt bring on fits of laughter and we’ll still depend on Indu and small children to help us understand and be understood in the swirl of everyday life in the community, but this time we’ll have a giant grab bag of vocabulary and a faint understanding of beginner’s grammar.

Yeh kiska kalum hai? Yeh mera kalum hai. (Whose pen is this? This is my pen.) Those two phrases alone should help when we need to take someone to the doctor. To our patient teachers, “Dhanyavaad!” (Thank you!)

For more information about the Landour Language School check out their website:

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