The lure of India (Issue 7, 2011)

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Dr Friedlander at his Melbourne campus office

The transformation of India’s economy and the subsequent rise of a ‘new India’ has drawn the attention of many western observers and writers. In fact the rise of India has inspired so many books it almost requires its own literary classification.


However, this is not to say that Western attention has only recently focused on India. Far from it. The fascination of outsiders with the dynamics of this teeming country dates back many centuries. For the most part, writers have sought to shed light on what makes this frenetic and seemingly chaotic country work.

It was this pluralism that first seduced Peter Friedlander, senior lecturer in Hindi and Buddhist Studies at La Trobe University’s Melbourne campus. Like many visitors to India, Peter (who arrived in India in the late 1970s) was swept up in the country’s mysticism and diversity. However, unlike scores of travellers, Peter did not think he could grasp the country’s unique nature by simply reading the latest bestseller on Indian culture and then exchanging theses with other ‘Indiaphiles’ on a roof-top restaurant in Udaipur. As much fun as this is, Peter knew it would not do.

‘I had a strong sense that you couldn’t really understand India properly just through English, because in those days, possibly more than now, the majority of people I met couldn’t speak English,’ says Peter.

At first Peter sought to teach himself Hindi by reading language guides, often asking hotel staff to help him. However, some guidebooks on offer weren’t the most helpful.

‘On one occasion I bought a book called Latest Teach Yourself Hindi and I started learning these sentences like “take these socks to the market and have them darned”. I was showing them to people and they didn’t know what it meant in Hindi let alone English. And then immediately under the section Sports and Pastimes was the sentence “I want to shoot a tiger”, which clearly showed it wasn’t really the latest language guidebook at all.’

After grappling with guidebooks, Peter’s luck changed one day while he was having a cup of tea in the city of Benares (otherwise known as Varanasi).

‘I met a man and I was talking to him in English saying I want to learn Hindi, and he said why don’t you learn with me because I run evening classes for English learners but if you come and work with me then I’ll also teach you Hindi. So I spent a year or so in Benares teaching English and learning Hindi.’

Peter ended up staying in India for five years, heading back to the UK in the early 1980s to undertake a degree in South Asian Studies at London University.

‘I learnt proper Hindi grammar at university and improved my Hindi as well,’ says Peter.

‘When I went back to the UK and went to university I became interested in the idea that by teaching Hindi I could help people understand more about Indian culture. Hindi for me was always the way in which you could try and understand the heart of India.’

After teaching Hindi as a foreign language throughout the 1990s – mainly to US students studying Buddhism in the holy city of Bodhgaya – Peter arrived at La Trobe University where he has since set up first and second year Hindi courses, with a third year course set to follow next year.

Peter explains that students enrolling in the Hindi classes typically belong to one of three groups: those who have some element of Indian background, those intending to be part of Indian families and those who have some interest in Indian religions, cultures, music or dance.

Peter remembers talking to one mature-age La Trobe student about why she was learning Hindi. She told him she was married to an Indian, but it was not her partner she needed to understand, it was her mother-in-law; she wanted to know what she was saying about her.

In addition to giving non-Hindi speakers a chance to understand their in-laws, the importance of Hindi as the rise of India continues cannot be understated.

‘In the Indian census of 2001, the number of people that could understand Hindi as a mother tongue or second or third language was 550 million people. In contrast, only about ten per cent of Indians can speak English. And because Hindi is a kind of link language, whether you are in the north or the south of India, you are quite likely to find some people who can speak it,’ says Peter.

This is even more important as Peter points out, while India’s middle-class is growing in number because the language they are predominantly speaking is not English, but Hindi.

‘Ever since India started to liberalise its economy in the early 1990s, Hindi has grown enormously as a language of popular discourse. It is the language of soap operas, news channels, film song, and Bollywood films, advertising and marketing.’

‘So it’s part of the modern commercial culture of India. Hindi has become much more the everyday language of a large number of people and is increasingly becoming a language of a modern culture.

‘This shows the importance of understanding Hindi to truly understand what is happening in all aspects of Indian society,’ says Peter.