The Peddler of Languages-Tanushree Vachharajani

The decision was made the day Vaishali first visited Amol’s family. It was on that summer day that the divide came up to swallow her, wide and gaping. The unfamiliar strains of Marathi that she had successfully been able to ignore over her fifteen years in Mumbai – getting by with Gujarati and Hindi – finally confronted her. The harsh syllables clapped above her ears, their meaning sinisterly and deliberately unclear. Being an outsider, Marathi had always been a guttural, alien language for her: the language of government offices, of lazy, uncooperative officials who tried to lock her out using the common bond of their language. But of late, it had morphed into the soft, civilized tongue of her lover – something that she didn’t mind coming to terms with. She had always fancied that she knew enough Marathi to get by, but she realized now that it was only the overlap between Marathi and Hindi that she had understood, which didn’t occur more than once in a long conversation. Amol’s family was nice – very polite – translating for her every few minutes and even talking to him in English for her benefit. Yet she hated to be patronized, to have to wait for an explanation, have jokes translated to her after the laughter was over and the topic was forgotten. How long could she keep delaying reacting to conversations, depending on him or someone else for a translation, not understanding when he said something to them? This was the language he had grown up with, the key to his past. And it was beyond her reach.

The day after meeting Amol’s family, Vaishali contacted the local directory helpline – ‘I’d like to know if you have any listings for Marathi teachers’. She doubted if she would find Marathi teachers in Maharashtra – everyone assumed that you knew the language. “What’s to learn?’, they would say. Apparently one was to just pick up a language – non-Maharashtrians who had lived in Mumbai usually did that, the smug polyglots. Yet, despite her profession being rooted in the English language, she realized she did not absorb languages like other people did. Where did one start? If you started with the vocabulary, the grammar came and bit you on the butt. If you started with the grammar, you didn’t have enough vocabulary to articulate the basic grammar. It was confounding, and she assumed that a Marathi teacher would know how to deal with this problem. The person at the other end of the line was saying ‘… and would you like us to connect you to these Marathi classes for free?’ She said yes, and was put through to a high-pitched woman. ‘Yes, we teach Marathi. Yes, home tutors. How old your child is?’ She hung up, mortified at being mistaken for a mother who needed tutoring for her child.

This happened three times. On the fourth call she was found herself talking to a man with a crisp, efficient voice. ‘Yes, this is Classic Management Classes. How may I help you?’ Yes, they did send home-tutors, at any time convenient to you. Yes, this was a 30-hour course that cost 6500 rupees, and you were promised fluent Marathi conversation by the end. She pictured herself laughing at all the jokes cracked in Marathi, the woman who’d picked up a new language seemingly effortlessly, who could peep for herself into her boyfriend’s culture, without a translator by her side.

‘How soon can you send in a tutor?’

When Vaishali first set her sight on Ms. Nazia, she wasn’t sure if this whole language-learning crusade was a good idea. Ms. Nazia wore a heavy green velvet salwaar-kameez, with her hair tied behind in a pony, grey and red and brown and black because of the hair dye that was abandoning her. She had just stepped in from the sun, and brought in the heat with her that swirled around in a palpable cloud. She looked so hot and uncomfortable that Vaishali squirmed. A big bag hung on one drooping shoulder and she stood shuffling her feet around when Vaishali opened the door. ‘Yes, yes, I am Ms. Nazia.’  She had a low, flat urgent voice. She invited her in, wondering where to ask her to sit. Where did home-tutors sit? On the dining table, sofa, bed, balcony seat? Vaishali was a germophobe, so the bed was probably out – she was even uncomfortable with her friends sitting on her bed. She was already detecting signs of some skin disorder in Ms. Nazia, and rapidly re-questioning her decision to learn this language. She should have just tried self-study from the Rapid Reader book series.

She finally had to lead her to the bed because the insurance agent popped up just then and her mother needed the dining table. Ms. Nazia perched herself on the edge of the bed while Vaishali brought out her newly designated notebook (‘MARATHI NOTEBOOK’, written in shiny orange ink). She sat there, poised with a pen over the first page, unsure of what was expected of her. Ms. Nazia looked with interest around the room. She asked her ‘Why you want to learn Marathi?’ Vaishali decided to tell her the truth ‘My boyfriend’s Maharashtrian.’ ‘Oh.’ She didn’t seem to know how to react to this information. Ms. Nazia, she discovered in later classes, was unmarried, living with her mother her brother’s family. She often talked about her niece. She never again brought up the reason Vaishali was learning Marathi.

The first class was a pilot. ‘You pay me 100 rupees, if you don’t like it you don’t have to call me again.’ In the half hour she dictated words to her, alien-sounding words, along with their meaning, by category. Verbs – bagh, sang, pathav, vatsch, aik. Look, say, read, listen. ‘I’ll give you tenses, you can learn them up and then we can start putting them into sentences.’ ‘Just learn them up?’ ‘Yes. By heart.’ By heart – the dearest, and as Vaishali was rapidly learning, a very important Indian study technique. Ms. Nazia left.  Vaishali conferred with her mother. She agreed it might be all right to continue. ‘Just as long as you don’t wear yourself out obsessing over her hygiene.’ She looked dubious when the skin disorder was mentioned. ‘Do you think it’s contagious?’ ‘I don’t know. If you’re doubtful, don’t continue the class.’  Vaishali decided to take the risk.

So the next evening Ms. Nazia was at her house once again, this time with her tiny tattered book on the dining table in front of her. She taught Vaishali many words, words which she rolled around in her mouth, tasting this new language. It sounded to her like someone else was speaking through her voice. The vocabulary lessons continued, so did the by-hearting. The categories diversified – directions, vegetables, animals, relatives, colours, numbers, measurements, seasons, feelings, professions and even minerals. Her favourite one was animals – in a language that sounded rough to her ears, the names for animals seemed remarkably mellow. Manjzar, undir, chimni, ghoobad, mhains – cat, mouse, sparrow, owl, buffalo. She found her warm spot and decided to take it from there.

Ms. Nazia liked to cook. In between all the vocabulary lessons, she would call for a five-minute break and discuss the latest dish she had experimented with. She inexplicably assumed that Vaishali too liked to cook. Perhaps the latter had tried feebly to show her neutrality towards it, but then Ms. Nazia was not the most intuitive or sensitive of people. When confronted with a new idea by Vaishali, or a contradiction, an irresolvable doubt which she brought up, her eyes would glass over in incomprehension, and she would repeat, in a tone that implied she was saying something new, the same statement she had made before. After a point, Vaishali gave up cracking her shell. It was simpler to just go along.

They progressed to grammar. After building small imperative sentences (‘Eat these fruits’), they moved on to more complex grammar that made Vaishali’s head spin. The thirty hours seemed to draw themselves out over a long time. Ms. Nazia’s other student was a frisky first-standard child, so she would inordinately praise Vaishali for her dedication and hard work, much to the latter’s amusement. She often administered an alternate version of the fill-in-the-blanks that she’d prepared for the child as a translation exercise for Vaishali. But Vaishali was worn out. The semantics and their meaning fell far apart and she couldn’t connect the two. She knew the words but it was hard to make a sentence. She could read better than she could speak. Every time she tried to make a meaning out of a paragraph or translate a sentence, it was wrong. She knew the meanings, but was interpreting the language all wrong. It felt like she would never be able to master it.

A week later, though, one fine morning, the signifier and its signified conflated. Just like that. The language exploded into transparency. She began to grasp what grammatical tool to use, to build an actual working sentence. It wasn’t at the speed of her speech, so she often had to pause and stutter and roll her eyes towards the ceiling while making up the sentence, but it had happened. Ms. Nazia, delighted by her lightning progress compared to her other five-year-old, took to calling her at odd times in the day and asking her questions in Marathi which she was to answer in the same language. Suddenly she could understand what the women in the train were saying about their lives, each sentence seeming to suddenly leap into the realm of coherence. It was a thrill, seeing the language come alive in front of her eyes and having her ears adjust to its rhythms.

She was left stunned by the fact that Gujarati and Marathi were mirror images of each other, only inverted. Many words overlapped, but it was the grammatical structure that was an exact parallel. In spite of this fact, she realized now that she could see into both cultures, that neither culture understood much of the other’s language. She took to translating directly from Gujarati and sometimes even replacing Gujarati words when flummoxed with a Marathi word – a strategy that often proved correct, and perplexed Ms. Nazia at her vocabulary leaps.

It finally seemed to Vaishali that Ms. Nazia, for all her inadaptability towards new ideas, was a good teacher. An unmarried Muslim lady, Vaishali gradually discovered that she was a full-time home tutor, teaching Hindi, Marathi, English, French and Urdu. She was also inordinately poor, she guessed from her small-talk about cooking some new dish on the kerosene stove in her chawl. This woman, this peddler of languages, made her meagre income going home-to-home teaching languages to everyone from frisky toddlers to housewives who wanted to learn English to aspiring actors who wanted to perfect their Hindi dialogue-delivery. She was also a very curious woman, wanting to know what Vaishali’s parents did, what her family history was, where her friends stayed, what she liked to cook, who her favourite hero was – questions that she would disguise in Marathi practice-conversation. She would ask in Marathi who her favourite chitrapatacha nat was, and on being told Shahrukh Khan would talk about her views on him while she ate the khari biscuit and tea that Vaishali’s mother would lay out for her.

Having accustomed her to the basics of grammar, Ms. Nazia now started reading small passages with Vaishali. She would bring in standard one textbooks (presumably her niece’s), and together they read about visits to the zoo, to the market, and about one’s daily routine. Vaishali read aloud, while Ms. Nazia ate her sweets or biscuits, occasionally correcting her pronunciation. Having finished with the last chapter on Christmas, Ms. Nazia began bringing in newspaper cuttings from Marathi newspapers from her house. She and her parents had always lived in Maharashtra, and it seemed that she was one of the polyglots who had picked up Marathi and other languages on the way and now sold them at a price. Vaishali read aloud from articles on home-remedies, beauty tips, advice on how to keep the house clean and how to get along well with your siblings, and the occasional love story in Marathi. She read recipes, how to make prawn curry, how to make mutton biryani, how to make shahi-tukda, how to make bread pudding – Vaishali had now read more literature on food than she had in her entire life. She would joke later that she had learnt Marathi practically through recipes. Ms. Nazia would then add in her own tips on how she had twisted some recipe to achieve better results, while Vaishali would listen wide-eyed, a Gujarati girl with no terminology for non-vegetarian food being instructed on how best to cook crabs. But it helped – the colloquial recipe-reading helped her pick up journalistic, more informal Marathi.

The thirty hours were drawing to an end. Ms. Nazia wanted 1500 rupees for treating her skin disorder, presumably an eczema. While she herself was reluctant, her mother thought it inexcusable to grudge someone money for medical treatment they couldn’t afford, and gave her the money after Ms. Nazia said she’d asked all of her other students and had been turned down each time. The last few classes they read a small book which contained small, two-page stories of Akbar-Birbal, all in Marathi. Ms. Nazia would hunch her shoulders over the book and laugh out loud like a child every time Birbal got the better of other scheming ministers. Vaishali also bought a fairytale book she saw in the local train, a collection of Aesop’s fables, but in Marathi. Ms. Nazia instantly coveted it, longingly stroking the glossy pages of the thin booklet (‘They are so shiny, look!’). Vaishali gifted it to her at the end of their reading, and after a couple of pseudo-refusals, put the book in her bag with barely-contained pleasure.

There were three hours left for the course to end. Vaishali spoke Marathi fairly decently with her bai now, practised with people outside, uttered small Marathi phrases in front of Amol’s delighted grandmother.  She could comprehend perfectly, and was sure she could speak flawlessly if only she could be confident enough. Ms. Nazia announced that she had another student now, and so would be short of time. They agreed to meet the next week to finish off the course. But Vaishali had to go out on the chosen day, so she called it off. Then Ms. Nazia had a stomach-ache. Then Vaishali fell sick. Then Ms. Nazia got busy. Finally Vaishali stopped trying to contact her – the language teacher had taught her enough, this neutral third-party having bridged the gap between Gujarati and Marathi. She had her lover’s language, and that was all she had wanted. She never saw her again, but her mother did – a year later, when Ms. Nazia dropped by unexpectedly to return the money she had borrowed for her treatment. And then the peddler of languages dissolved without a trace, just as suddenly as she’d appeared in front of Vaishali on a hot afternoon, back into the crowds of Mumbai.

Tanushree Vachharajani is currently pursuing a PhD in English from Northwestern University, Chicago. She works on postcolonial and Dalit literature, across English and Gujarati. Her fiction has previously been published in magazines such as the Canada-based Ascent Aspirations and Damselfly Press.