Hearing my Punjabi, my Sardarji colleague exclaimed, ‘Sirf tinn mainnaanv vich tussi Punjabi sikh li!’ (You picked up Punjabi in barely three months!) This was not a solitary instance: in a month of my reaching Calcutta, I could read Bengali and about two months later, I was able to understand every bit of the conversation I overheard in trams and buses. Ditto with Marathi which I acquired a smattering of while working in Mumbai and and Gujarati during my short stint in Bhavnagar.
It had not always been so. I guess it was the survival instinct that made me ‘acquire’ languages, to use a nascent expression. I was plucked from the village where I had lived all the eighteen years of my life I had never left and transplanted in the heartland Hindi, left to fend for myself. When you are placed in alien surroundings where another tongue is spoken, you have no alternative.
Not that I did not learn Hindi at school. It was part of the curriculum, but those were the days when Hindi was making its stealthy entry into the schools in South Indian states as an ‘additional language’. It was almost like drawing, drill or music where there were classes, but you had no exam. Except that for Hindi, you had to write the exam, but no passing marks had been prescribed.
Even my father who was a Martinet and was the type that would ask, ‘What happened to that 3%?’ instead of complimenting you on scoring 97% in Mathematics, permitted some leeway in the case of Hindi. And, I happily took advantage of it. The result was that my prowess over the national language was not equal to the demands that Jabalpur made on me.
Our Hindi teacher was a tall man with a lean and hungry look like Cassius according to Julius Caesar. He was always clad in spotless white khadi. The first thing you would notice about his was the eight black buttons on his shirt which would reach his knees, giving rise to the nickname ‘Ettu-button-ji’. It was actually ‘Ettu-button’ to begin with, but the ji was added in true Hindi style to reflect the ‘respect’.
One of the first lessons in the book in Class IX was the fable of the hare and tortoise. The homework included writing five sentences each about hares and tortoises. An earlier lesson was about vegetables and I was familiar with the word ‘Gaajar’ (carrots). I decided to bring this knowledge of mine in completing the assignment and wrote ‘Gaajar khargosh khaata hai’ - what I thought was the equivalent of ‘Rabbits eat carrots’. Little knowing that I had in my enthusiasm interchanged the subject and the object, I placed my composition book (A thing of the past!) on the table in the Teachers’ Room.
In the next Hindi class, the revered teacher motioned to me to stand up and asked me to correct the sentence ‘Gaajar khargosh khaata hai’. I thought I had confused between Gaajar and Tarbooj (watermelon) and corrected it as ‘Tarbooj khargosh khaata hai’, to the great merriment of my classmates. I knew I had bungled and hastily corrected it to ‘Gaajar tarbooj khaata hai’ whence I went to ‘Khargosh tarbooj khaata hai’ to ‘Tarbooj gaajar khaata hai’. By then the class was in splits, with yours truly providing undiluted innocent entertainment.
Though I had not learnt the Theory of Permutations and Combinations yet, that was when its limitless possibilities revealed themselves to me. For the sake of records, let me add that the factually correct ‘Khargosh gaajar khaata hai ’ too issued out of my mouth at some point, but I was not sure it was right and in any case, it was drowned in mirthful cacophony.
Thank god for small mercies: I had not come across the word ‘kharbooja’ (Melon). If I had, instead of 3P2 = 6 permutations, there would have been 4P2 = 12 and the entertainment would have been twice as much!
The story has a happy ending: during my stint in Jabalpur, I picked up a good deal of Hindi and even developed interest in ghazals, sher, shaayri, nazm and khayaal, something I cherish even today.