Learning Hindi and Campus Politics

I’m posting from my favorite New Delhi coffee shop, Gloria Jean’s.  Its ice cold AC and delicious iced mochas remind me of my neighborhood Starbucks.  In a great show of globalization, Gloria Jean’s patrons come from all over the world.  This diverse crowd, and the Michael Jackson soundtrack now playing overhead, makes this corner in New Delhi feel like any street corner in one of the world’s large capital cities.

On Wednesday evening I had my first Hindi class.  I am taking classes at a private school called Zabaan, recommended to me by Sonya, another Ambassadorial Scholar from the States who studied here last year.  In the first 90 minute class (6:30-8pm every Wednesday) we learned, or at least tried to absorb, the Hindi alphabet.  I have been excited to dig into a new language and knew Hindi would be a challenge.  So far the languages I have tackled with a degree of success (Spanish, French, and Italian) have been Romance languages, sharing the same grammatical structure and alphabet, give or take a few letters.  But Hindi is a whole new world.  Cultural anthropologist Wade Davis beautifully articulates that “every language is an old-growth forest of the mind”.  Indeed each language does not simply assign its own set of sounds and words to the world around us – each language is a unique human exercise in understanding the world and our place in it.

I already experience the world fluently in English and Spanish.  I know what it’s like to go through the point in language acquisition when you feel like you’re losing all ability to communicate proficiently, an uncomfortable period when you feel befuddled, unable to express yourself in either tongue.  But the emergence from that linguistic limbo can be likened to putting on your first pair of glasses after squinting through fourth grade, or touching down in a new hemisphere.  You see things you didn’t see before, feel things you hadn’t felt before, and meet a part of you that was always inside but didn’t know how to introduce herself until now.

The first two weeks of our course will focus on learning Devanagari, the Hindi alphabet.  It is an ancient script used also in Sanksrit, Nepali, Marathi, and others.  More than learning new sounds and structures, I think getting a new alphabet into my brain will be the biggest hurdle in this process.  This is what my practice looks like so far.


After class at Zabaan I took an auto to the JNU campus to attend a public meeting held regarding the students’ three year long struggle to restore the JNU Student Union.  First, some background: JNU is a centrally (federally, in U.S. terms) funded institution with a long history of political activism among students.  In 2008 the government of India disbanded the JNU Student Union, the students’ governing body, citing it had become “over politicized”.  Since 2008 JNU students have been locked in a battle with the Supreme Court of India and barred from electing a governing body to represent student interests.  Imagine if one day the MN Supreme Court eliminated the University of Minnesota Student Government Association on the grounds that U of MN students were protesting too strongly the wars in the Middle East, holding the prolife banner too high, or had become overly involved in any other issue of national interest.  Now realize that the political climate at JNU resembles that of Macalester College or UC-Berkeley.  JNU students have put up quite a fight.

At 9:30pm a large crowd gathered outside the Student Union offices.  Many were yelling slogans in Hindi and English – “Long live JNU Student Union!” etc.  As a light rain started to fall the crowd moved inside and hundreds of us took a seat on the floor of the JNUSU basketball court.  A panel of eight professors attended the meeting to voice their support on the side of the students.  Each of the professors took a turn at the mic as did leading members of student organizations like All India Student Association (AISA), Students Federation of India (SFI), and National Student Union of India (NSUI).  Between each speech, one more passionate than the last, students shouted more call-and-response slogans.  References were made to Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the fact that the meeting was taking place in a court was highlighted as appropriate, given the French Revolution had taken place in a tennis court.  Professors spoke to the noted absence of the student union saying an important piece of campus life is missing.  A couple of the professors had attended JNU as undergrads or grad students and spoke of elections past and the role of JNUSU.

I was particularly interested in learning more about campus politics having served a term as Cultural Affairs Board Representative on the Saint Ben’s Senate.  I learned more than I can quantify during my time as a Senator.  The opportunity to participate in student government as an office holder or student voter is great practice for civic engagement on a larger scale.  In my opinion, student representation in university affairs is a right that should be preserved for students everywhere democracy is the national model of governance.  Many of the speakers noted that the disbanding of the JNUSU signaled a national effort to tamper student activism and youth involvement in politics.  The struggle to reinstate a student union at JNU is one fascinating piece in the puzzle of a country whose citizens and politicians fight daily battles over land use and corruption.

This is a holiday weekend.  Saturday is Rakhi, the siblings’ holiday I explained in my previous post, and Monday is Independence Day.  Many people try to leave Delhi for a long weekend in the hill stations of the Himalaya.  I’m expecting a relaxed weekend, perhaps some sightseeing, and definitely more Hindi practice.  On Tuesday, August 16th, Anna Hazare, a prominent social activist and public figure in India will begin a hunger strike in protest of government corruption.  That story, and the “Team Anna”/“Gang Anna”/“I’m with Anna” signs seen around Delhi, are great fodder for another post coming soon.

Have a blessed weekend.  Namaste.

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Posted on August 13, 2011, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Go Anna go. Your sorting of the impact language has on our history and understanding of the world demonstrates the need to go beyond interpretation of different languages so the cultures can shine through. Thanks for pushing these concepts into my consciousness!

  2. Buy me a Team Anna shirt.

    Please and thanks.

  3. How much do courses at Zabaan cost? I think it would be a good place to join; im just having difficulty finding the fee schedule on their website.

    • Group courses are Rs. 500 or more an hour. It varies based on whether you are doing group courses or private instruction. Send them an email from their webpage or give them a call for specific information.

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