For many years, I have been lying on forms. I lied on the forms that got me into college, and again on census forms, and again on countless job applications. My mother began it decades ago when she told me, “Tell people your first language is English.”
This wasn’t always her plan. My first language was Hindi, the curling yet rapid language of Northern India. I spoke Hindi in the suburbs of Chicago in 1985. I spoke it—or tried to—with swimming instructors and neighbors and grocery store checkout clerks until one day a doctor, analytical pencil in hand, said, “Yes, I see she can make sounds, but does she speak words?” My mother recounts this story years later, her sense of injustice and sorrow as strong now as it was then.
By the time I turned four, my Hindi had gone deep underground, into that hidden and murky synaptic reservoir where our earliest memories reside: the music we heard in the womb, the smells of things whose names we can no longer recall. And there it stayed, even as I grew older and language became everything to me—the living substance from which I formed the parts of myself that I could shape. I spent three years on the staff of school literary magazines, copyediting my classmates’ poems. I codirected a Shakespeare play in twelfth grade, slashing King Lear down to thirty minutes, narrowing the lead character’s endless grief to a high school class period.
When I was in college at Northwestern University near Chicago, I signed up for an accelerated Hindi class, hoping to recover the childhood fluency my parents swore I’d had. My professor taught us how to pronounce the aspirated sounds, where to place our tongues in relation to our teeth, our lips, our palates. But after all this—when I landed in New Delhi at age 23 to work as a correspondent for a national English-language newspaper—I stepped off the plane and asked a porter, Where can I find my bag? and he looked utterly blank. I got this reaction many times.
A colleague took pity on me and explained: “Your American accent is really quite bad.” An American accent? I could hardly have been accused of a more offensive crime, after all, I was a native Hindi speaker.
Indians never ask about your first language. Instead, they ask, “What is your mother tongue?” To my coworkers at the newspaper, it was an open-and-shut case: “You are an American.”
In the streets of New Delhi, corrupted, dissolving, overwhelmingly populous, everything felt to me like a foreign tongue. As the days went on, I learned a new set of social relationships as well as the rules beneath them. I spoke daily with clerks who refused to let me into government offices until I mentioned I was actually a Gupta from Rajasthan, and not some American spy; with politicians fluent in English, who would toss in Hindi euphemisms just to see if I could follow along; with auto-rickshaw drivers, whom I’d hail from the side of the road, in 110-degree heat, calling out “Eh bhaiyya,” or “Hey, brother.”
Indians never ask about your first language. Instead, they ask, “What is your mother tongue?”
I’d wander down the dusty street to my local kiraana shop, its shelves crowded with packets of biscuits and single-serve sachets of shampoo, and place an order that mixed Hindi and English: paneer, tomato paste, macaroni, aubergine. When, inevitably, my grocery order didn’t arrive, I’d call the older uncle who ran the store. He’d say, “Mera ladka nahin aaya,” or, “My delivery boy never came.” I sputtered on the other end of the line, struggling with a response that only made sense in English, something like, “Have you considered refining your hiring practices?”
My mother says Hindi is a poetic language, but she’s spent very little time on the streets of New Delhi. The phrases I learned from Delhi’s rickshaw drivers were all obscene, although I didn’t always know that at the time. I learned how to say Fuck you, fuck your sister. Yet I’m still not sure what the words are for you’re welcome, or even if they exist. I could say Delhi taught me to be ungrateful, but I suspect it was in me all along.
When someone stole the lock off my apartment door, I reported the crime to two different sets of policemen, neither of whom wrote it down. One of them offered to come by later in case the “loneliness” of Delhi got to me. The word he used—mehsoos—was one I didn’t know, and it wasn’t until I repeated his offer to my coworkers that they finally explained he’d been hitting on me. I learned to interrupt other people in the middle of their sentences, and to raise my voice when they tried to do the same. I learned to gawk at the scenes of accidents and occasionally, unwisely, try to adjudicate. I was never the only one.
Hindi is a difficult language for native English speakers to learn. I have heard it is more difficult than Spanish, Italian, or French but easier than Chinese or Japanese. It has nearly a dozen vowels, aspirated consonants, diacritic characters. Its roots and stems contain a feast of sounds, conjugations, and—I quickly learned—unintended insults. I know I used the wrong gender for someone more than once.
America is one of the last bastions of monolingualism. Nowadays, people tell me, “I wish I’d learned another language as a child.” They say, “You’re lucky.”
Several years ago, while I was still in India, an editor of mine asked a roomful of reporters to name our native language, to sort where we were going versus where we were from. India being a nation of multilinguals, he clarified, “What language do you dream in?” Hindi is, in a way, my mother tongue. It is the language that greeted me when I emerged, and a language that, when I am a mother, I hope to pass on. It is also the language of a dream: the dream I had at 23 that I could own a corner of the world far from the place I’d been born. It is the same dream my parents had.
“What language do you dream in?”
Hindi is my mother tongue, but English is the language that raised me: it opened up science, literature, and my view of my place in the world. It is the language I speak with my parents today. It is the only language my sister knows.
But I know the truth: language exists to obscure the fact that for dreams, real ones, no words exist. I lived in New Delhi for five years, and language became my metaphor for what I hoped and always failed to hold. The color of the water in Hauz Khas reservoir when I looked down on it with newfound friends, or the feel of the wind at night when I rode a motorcycle past New Delhi’s endless monuments, or the look on the face of a man I loved when he looked at me. I remember being 27 and realizing I would leave the city, the first one I had truly known, the one that taught me what it means to love cities. I remember waking at night in my bed in Greater Kailash, not sure whether it was joy or sadness that had left its imprint on me, because I knew without words I still dreamed of another home.