As I start writing this story, picking up the proverbial pen, I realize how comfortable it is for me to talk to the people around me because we share a common dialect. Talking to Pallavi Singh, I wondered just how helpful it is to be able to speak in a particular language especially when you’re not a resident of that particular country.
As Nelson Mandela put it,
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”
I begin by asking her to tell something about herself and she replies with, “I am a misfit, but a misfit who works.”
Pallavi Singh is from Delhi. She graduated in engineering and moved on to pursue psychology in Mumbai. She also has a diploma in French. She comes from a conservative family background where she didn’t have a whole lot of choices as to what she could pursue as a career. Doctor and Engineer, these were according to her parents, surest ways of ensuring safe and continuous income for the foreseeable future.
When Pallavi was 19 she wanted to earn her own pocket money. And there was no provision for a student to earn along with his/her education. Yes, there are internships but they don’t pay as much. She was studying French when she was in the second year of her engineering in Delhi. That is when the thought struck her.
“While studying french, the only time I really used it was in those 2 hours during my class. I felt I would be so much better at it if there was someone who could sit with me and talk to me in french.”
At that point, she realized, what if there were others who felt the same way about Hindi. Pallavi, who had never taught before, at this point, started teaching Hindi in a more comfortable and customized setting. One of her first students was a guy from Africa and his girlfriend. From there on, she never looked back.
Pallavi went on to pursue her masters in psychology from Sophia college in Mumbai. Her parents weren’t happy about her decision to pursue psychology, more so after she had a degree in engineering. She was inclined to study but she didn’t want to leave her engineering midway. She continued teaching even while she was Mumbai. That was her means of living and helped her cover the expenses.
Mumbaikar, this caught my interest.
“Which one do you think is better?”, I asked her before I could move on with the conversation.
“I, of course, enjoyed Mumbai. But it’s not home. It’s never going to be home. It’s such a chaotic place, it shouldn’t function but somehow it does.”
In the course of her journey, Pallavi has taught William Dalrymple(Historian). She contacted him on Facebook to wish him on his birthday, “Hey! Happy Birthday, I would like to have a piece of your cake while teaching you Hindi.”
She tells me that William Dalrymple has been in India since the late 80’s and he already had all the knowledge bank in place. She describes one of her experiences with him.
“Every time he used to visit a restaurant he used to see sabz-bahar and sabz hara bhara on the menu, which made him think sabz meant green.” She used to help him synchronize his ideas with the real world and help him put things into structures.
Pallavi doesn’t follow a flow of conventional coursebooks that are available ironically, a lot of these books are written by foreigners. These books translate a lot of words that aren’t used in informal Hindi usually like Mom and Dad translated to माता पिता. The eliminates these inconsistencies and provides her students with a more ready-to-use Hindi lesson.
She has had the good fortune to interact with a lot of people from various nationalities. She shared stories about a couple of her students.
One of her students from Seattle is here with her fiance and she doesn’t have many instances where she can use Hindi. So she regularly talks to her driver in Hindi about trivia, just as Pallavi wanted during her french diploma.
“One of my students was traveling by auto. Two passerbys stopped to ask for an address and the driver tilted his head and said he didn’t know. So she(my student) explains them the address in Hindi. The look of surprise on her face, she says, was truly rewarding”
Future with Hindilessons?
Pallavi, who has taught over 500 students now, is already working with American, Spanish, Belgian and Australian consulates. She wants to expand her reach to more consulates and private clients. I presumed since there are so many tourists and foreigners in India, there must be many who help these consulates. But Pallavi clarifies that there are people who teach Hindi not because they want to but because they need to.
“It’s surprising and sometimes depressing but there are very few people who teach Hindi from the perspective of improving communication and not just teaching someone a new set of words and a protocol to use them.”
As I mentioned above, since there are foreigners working in India since ages, it is a little hard to digest that there is no one who has taken this up and taught them in an interesting way. Pallavi tells me that there are academic institutions who teach Hindi, but since people are working, they want it customized to their timings and needs, as opposed to studying the subject in a more conventional manner.
She doesn’t wish to expand and bring aboard other people for now. It’s such a personal skill and involves a lot of interaction, making your students feel comfortable, etc. So it very difficult for her to trust someone else with such a task who wouldn’t hurt the credibility of the work she does, which is why she would love to take it ahead personally as long as she can.
As someone once said, “We are the drivers of our own destinies, or in this case, driving instructors to help others drive so that they can reach theirs.”
Edited by Ayush Agarwal.