News Find/Feedback/Site Index
May 9, 2000

Good Samaritans
News Archives
The Arts

Hindi-wallahs vs non-Hindi-wallahs

E-Mail this report to a friend

Reeta Sinha

Last week I had what could be called a fencing match. No swords were drawn, words were enough. In fact, it began with a transliterated Tamil word a friend used on an Indian site. A visitor noticed the word and said the transliteration might confuse the site's "Hindi-wallahs." I'll call this breed HWs for short. It seems this reader, a NHW, that's Non-Hindi-wallah of course, was under the impression HWs would think this combination of four letters in English could only be a Hindi word. This would happen although it was clearly stated the word was Tamil and even though the site was an English-medium one - meaning, if one states in English that a word is Tamil, presumably most readers will be able to "get it."

If I test this NHW's theory out, let's see, in the paragraph above, HWs reading will confuse "had" for had, "to" for to, "the" for get the idea. To be fair, when I responded that HWs knew the difference between Tamil and Hindi, I was told that he really meant the transliteration didn't accurately represent the phonetic sounds in Tamil. And, this makes it different how? Once again, what he said, in a different way, was that HWs will take a word, any word, and try to fit it into their HW vocabulary, sounds and all.

Of course, I don't think that was the NHW's purpose - to correct pronunciation on a site that has no sound. No, some NHWs lie in wait for opportunities to provoke those who speak a language different than their own. Such an opportunity fell right into an NHW's lap that day. It's not the first time and it won't be the last. To hear them tell it, it's a question of pride, of survival, of speaking up against years of linguistic repression.

I'd almost believe them, if the NHWs promoting this so-called regional linguistic pride hadn't spent 10, 20, maybe 30 years using another language, probably more often on a daily basis than they have their own. That language would be English, here in the USA. I figure if these regional language nationalists really have such strong feelings about Tamil, or Telugu, or Bengali, or even Hindi, any day now we Indians here should expect an uprising against English. After all, we live here too and how dare anyone force us to speak a language that is not our own.

It wasn't enough, it seems, to divide India along linguistic lines. Now, in the US, Indians draw these same imaginary boundaries in the name of affinity and preserving their culture. A culture which promotes discrimination based on language, as if religion, socio-economic status, new Indian, old Indian weren't divisive enough.

The main divide, of course, is between that all-encompassing thing called "Hindi", and everything else not quite. It's that North-South thing. So, while the NHW above was taking a jab at HWs, you know he didn't mean Gujarati or Punjabi or Rajasthani or Kashmiri speaking people. Actually, maybe he did. I've learned over the years that many NHWs from southern India have little clue about the unique languages spoken north of where they live. If it's from up there, it is all the same. Hindi, Urdu, Hindustani, Punjabi, what's the difference? They are all Hindi-wallahs. Try telling a Bengali-wallah that.

Or, better yet, try telling a southern NHW nationalist that India and Pakistan and Sri Lanka are all one thing. You know, like South Asia? I am quite sure these folks wouldn't sit still for such cultural lumping, yet hypocritically, they have no qualms about doing exactly the same to those who are from other parts of India. If they grouped people from the north into one called "Indian", I'd have no problem. But, for people who have knee-jerk emotional reactions when a Malayalam-speaking Keralite is confused for one who speaks Tamil, for example, it is unfathomable why they feel they can do the same to others.

The only reason to do so is because it is not the language one is against, but the people who speak it. Maybe it goes beyond the people also - maybe it's their entire history and culture, one NHWs feel is inferior and polluted when compared to their own. But, language is the tool by which one Indian chooses to discriminate against and to put down another. It has nothing to do with preserving or taking pride in one's own regional language. Attacking someone for speaking words that sound different does not prove love for one's own language, nor is pride motivated by subjugating or ridiculing another. What is this then? It's linguistic bigotry, pure and simple.

We've almost all experienced this type of bigotry here, I think, in seemingly little ways. With a last name that spans at least three Indian states, I came across it early in life, even in a small Midwestern town with very few Indians. If new Bengalis came to campus, they reflexively assumed we were Bengali Sinhas. Occasionally, one would confirm this with, "Are you Bengali?" Once they saw the head moving to the side, before the "No" was even uttered, off they would be, down the sidewalk without a good-bye, or a glance our way again, ever. Later, in college, I learned to play this scene out. I'd wait for the glitter in their eyes and the foaming at the mouth - such was the excitement of meeting another who spoke Bengali - before dropping the bomb: "Sinhas, you know, don't just hail from Bengal," I'd start, and end with that crushing blow "No, I don't speak Bengali."

This display of eagerness is not a longing to hear one's own language in a strange country, nor is it that heartstring-tug we all experience when we see or hear something from another place or time. That's what was in the voice of a jogger at a park in California as he passed me saying "Hey, she's got an Emory sweatshirt on." It's the feeling I get when I hear snatches of an Indian classical composition on National Public Radio. But, I don't stop listening to the news when I realize the music introduced an American story, and the jogger didn't write me off as a non-entity when he realized I wasn't a student like he was at Emory. For Indians, discovering that someone speaks another language, one which they apparently disdain, is an all-consuming disappointment in the other person, sending the clear signal "Only those who speak my language are worthy individuals."

And, it is due to this lack of respect for the person that you have those NHWs who feel they can ignore you if two or more of their language-mates get together. So, there you are, sitting at dinner with a NHW couple and their pals and they carry on as if you are not there. It's understandable, they probably never get a chance to speak their own language, what with English becoming the norm for those in India and the US, at home and at work. No, the only time they can brush up on their regional language is when they have someone else there who can't understand it. Linguistic pride? Hardly.

Change the scene to include an English-wallah, a colleague from work, perhaps, and NHW pride goes out the window. Suddenly, it's more important to impress on the colleague that NHWs are just like them, we don't speak our native languages in public, not us, never. If it were pride, wouldn't they speak their language no matter where they were, no matter who was with them? It appears preservation of a language is not worth the effort unless you can score points against a HW. And, if you can be rude in the process, more power to you and your language.

The arguments I've heard from NHWs run the gamut from "Hindi has victimized us" to "It's such an unappealing language." To the latter, I ask, how would you know? I mean, yes, some languages sound soft and poetic, but if you don't even understand a language, haven't bothered to learn it beyond a mandated level, indeed, have spent more energy disliking it, how is it possible to know what makes it beautiful or not? Stringing together phonetic sounds does not a language make, as NHWs well know, given how they can gush over each and every word of their respective vocabularies. Which is what gets them into trouble in the end. "Unappealing" actually means gibberish. Instead of Greek, it's all Hindi to them. But, I have yet to hear one of them tell me that German, or Swahili, or even English is an "unappealing" language.

And, it goes beyond appeal for the NHWs who ask me why I want to learn Urdu, why I listen to ghazals, what is so great about it anyway? Yet, in almost 30 years not one has asked me why I chose French in school as my elective language. Why not German, why not Latin? NHWs aren't really interested in my linguistic preferences, you see, not unless it involves a people, a culture, a religion that represent a thorn in their Indian-yet living-in-the-USA-side.

What was I talking about? Oh yes, language.

To their first argument, I respond: a language does not victimize, it cannot. Despite their complaints, I'd like to know how Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani have affected a NHWs ability to speak, write, or understand their own language? When one who speaks Tamil lives in Delhi, does she stop speaking Tamil? Does someone who speaks Malayalam forget it when he moves to Calcutta? No. So, the real argument must be, "When I go outside my region, I am forced to understand a language I don't know." I suppose this is not a situation HWs face when they live in Madras. And, apparently this is not an issue when NHWs leave India. Not once have I heard them say anything against English. In fact, some have said they believe the national language of India needs to be English. It's the language of power and wealth.

Perhaps that is the solution; choose a language that doesn't belong to any of us. This would be most fitting for a people who lack a national identity. We are our language-group first, we are Indians last. And, we refuse to learn from others who seem to have resolved the same issues successfully, for example, Switzerland, where those speaking French, German, and Italian have found a way to make it work, perhaps because they are Swiss first. Rather than concentrating on that which divides, perhaps Indians, particularly those here, need to look at what we share, what we have in common.

You may be thinking this column is a reflection of my own regional linguistic pride. It is. As a first-generation Indian, fluency in my mother tongue has not come naturally, like it does to Indians who come here as adults. It is not a language I have to ever use, since my relatives here and in India speak English, and because I live and work among English-speaking people. It is not a language I chose - few of us have a choice as simple as HW vs NHW. It is the language of my family, of the place from where my family comes.

My pride and love for it do not stem from the belief that it is a better than Tamil, or Telugu, or Kannada, or any other language of the world. This language allows me to understand my parents who, after 40 years here, still use it to speak with each other, with their family, and friends; it is a language which permits me to speak to and understand my grandparents when I visit India and it enables me to correspond with them when I'm here; it is a language which keeps me connected to what is happening in India; a country I have not had the privilege of living in, yet is a part of who I am here. Without my language, I would not be able to listen to its music, watch its films, understand its theatre, follow its news, reach beyond what mainstream English media would have me see and hear.

I do not have to discriminate against another language, or the people who speak it, to be in love with the one I know. I do not need another's permission to preserve it; it happens every time I use it. I do not have to deny these same feelings to others in order to give mine credence. Those, Hindi-wallahs and Non-Hindi-wallahs, who use a language to further their own personal or political agendas cannot, as I see it, have any love for it. They see the language merely as a pawn, a means to their end. Nothing could be more insulting to one's mother tongue.

With regards to the fencing match I mentioned at the start, you may be wondering who won. No one did, no one could; we weren't even speaking the same language.

Reeta Sinha, a librarian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, is on's editorial team. She can be reached at

Next: Fighting and protesting to be happy

Tell us what you think of this report