A conversation about mangoes (or, letting go of my linguistic process)

After four years away, I am back in India, exploring spaces known and new. Some of this process of reentry has been eased by a certain muscle memory—the moments when, without thought, my unsoiled left hand has reached for a second serving of daal, or when my knees have gone slack in preparation to reach for an elder’s feet. But when it came to the recovery of my Hindi, a language in which I had never been fluent, it was clear that my ears’ memory was far sharper than my tongue’s. For every word I could speak, I could understand twenty more.

I started taking daily Hindi lessons again and set about my studies as best as I knew how. But no matter how many grammar rules I reviewed and flash cards I thumbed through, I mostly fell mute in conversation. My lag time was simply too long—by the time I had translated what I wanted to say into Hindi, the conversation had moved on, rendering my perfectly structured sentence perfectly irrelevant. So it seemed that the more I tried to speak in Hindi, the less I was able to do so.

It was a conversation about mangoes that changed everything.

My close friend had asked me to pick up some photos at the home of his brother, Narayan. Having never met Narayan before, I was so distracted by the question of how we would manage to communicate when we met that I didn’t consider what else might happen. As soon as I arrived at his apartment, Narayan disappeared into another room, leaving me on the couch facing his wife, Tota. Eager not to make the visit any more awkward, I decided to break the silence and ventured a few sentences in Hindi, introducing myself as a friend of her brother-in-law. Clearly surprised (and pleased) to hear me speaking Hindi, Tota began asking me questions. She served me chai, and the two of us kept talking. It wasn’t until I left that I realized I had just carried on a 45-minute conversation entirely in Hindi.

I couldn’t wait to get home to tell A what had happened. I told him how nice Tota was, how warmly and patiently she had listened to my Hindi, and the inexplicable ease with which I had been able to understand hers. “What did you talk about?” he asked. For the first time since I’d arrived, I couldn’t pick apart one of my conversations, the new vocabulary words I’d used or complicated sentences I’d (successfully) constructed. “We just… talked.”

There was, however, one sentence I could recall exactly. Tota had asked if mangoes were available in America. Haan, wahaa to milta hai, lekin… “Yes, they’re available, but…” I paused, trying to recall the verb “to grow” (or if I had ever even learned it). Unable to remember, I began again. Haan, milta hai, lekin bahar se aata hai, isliye veh bahut mahenge hain. “Yes, they’re available, but they come from outside, so they’re very expensive.”

It was then that I knew I had turned a corner. I had spent so much time translating from one language to another that my Hindi had become inextricably bound up in my English. I hadn’t been prepared to meet Tota, or to speak with her in Hindi, but this very lack of preparation had allowed me to circumvent my own (tortured) linguistic process. I had given up the project of how to say something, and instead just said it.

Weeks later I happened upon Tota at a concert. My ears were tuned into a raga when I heard another, yet more foreign sound—that of Tota speaking English. Hearing her fluency in my native tongue, far surpassing mine in hers, I was even more grateful for her patience, and her friendship. We have continued to meet, always speaking in Hindi. A few days ago she began to refer to me with tum, the informal pronoun, a marker of intimacy. No matter how broken my Hindi may be, I have found a true friend in Tota. No translation necessary.

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