I don’t really speak Hindi. It is the only way, and I mean this truly, apart from melodrama it may connote, it is the only way in which I feel at all like a failure in life. I can understand a great deal of Hindi when spoken to, I know my colors and numbers and (of course) food items, but I can’t really form sentences on my own in order to respond back. The alphabet I recognize, and I can sound out words phonetically but my vocabulary isn’t so great and my writing ability is limited to signing my own name.
I can hear my mother: “I know, I know, we screwed up big time!” My one big wish, that they had taught me when I was a baby. They didn’t because they thought it would be best. Raising a child period seems scary enough to me, let alone raising one in a completely foreign country. My parents feared that difference would haunt me, that I would be teased, encumbered by an accent. For them, their voices were the main channels through which they encountered resistance, were flagged as “other.”
And so English was my first language. It fact, it was the only language they spoke to me, around me, for a long time. By the time I was old enough to wish for bilinguality, to request that my parents start speaking in Hindi around the house, they were rusty, throwing in English words where their vocabularies had gone soft. I believe I was in college by the time I figured out that my father was actually trilingual (Punjabi), my mother an impressive quad (Punjabi, Urdu). No need to worry about this daughter assimilating: I’m an all-American, English-only speaker.
I took one semester of Hindi in college, and struggled through the whole thing. Perhaps it was the case of a naturally gifted student bucking up against something, for once, not coming naturally. Perhaps I thought, of all things, this should. I’ve also always been so totally intimidated by other Indian kids, to tell the truth. Like they are part of some club I just don’t belong to. They watch the movies, they have spent multiple summers in India, they hang out almost exclusively with other Indians. They knew much more of the language than I did. Me? I took a geeky, dead language (Latin) in high school and have a terrible ear for accents and intricacies. Thank goodness I took that class pass/fail. Needless to say, I did not go back for Hindi 102.
A few years later, I put in a good effort with a set of those ubiquitous Rosetta Stone CD-ROMs before my parents and I traveled to India, doing well enough to make my three weeks there a fertile time for my brain to absorb everything I heard. I found myself laughing at jokes, having mostly understood them, and even dreaming in Hindi for weeks after we got back. Dreaming in another language is one of the most sublime things I have ever experienced, as if the gods had favored you: my child, you are authentic now.
But it didn’t last. My father died, and somehow the desire to work on my Hindi died with him. Losing him only highlighted how much I wish I spoke this language, how inadequate I feel not knowing it, how utterly defeated I am by the whole thing. I find that I am ashamed, worried I seem like a fraud, such a white girl parading around in brown skin. At some point, I’m just going to have to accept that I may never speak Hindi the way I want to—which might free me up to actually make a concerted effort to learn it instead of wishing I could just magically go back in time and learn how.
What I can do is cook the food. And, for now, that is a kind of language in and of itself.
GAAJAR, GOBI, & HARI MIRCH ACHAR
(CARROT, CAULIFLOWER, & JALAPEÑO PICKLE)
This is, I’m afraid, one of those Indian recipes which calls for ingredients you probably don’t have on hand. They can, however, be easily acquired at any Indian grocery store or good spice purveyor.
Though this recipe is for a pickle, there’s no reason you can’t eat it like a sabji (vegetable dish), especially if you are a fan of spice. Otherwise, serve it alongside other Indian dishes as a condiment or with storebought papadum or other flatbread/cracker as an excellent appetizer.
1 ½ tsp. mustard seeds
1 ½ tsp. whole coriander
1 tsp. whole cumin
1 tsp. anise seeds
1 tsp. fenugreek seeds
Toast the spices in a small saucepan or toaster oven (set on low) for 5-8 minutes or until fragrant. Cool the mixture a bit before grinding to a powder.
4 large carrots, peeled & cut into ¼ -inch slices
1 cup cauliflower florets
3 jalapeño peppers, sliced ½-inch thick
Place the vegetables into a heat-safe colander. Pour 4 cups boiling water over them to soften/sterilize.
to make the achar:
¼ cup canola or vegetable oil
¼ cup lime or lemon juice
½ tsp. turmeric
¼ tsp. garlic powder
Heat the oil over medium in a deep, heavy-bottomed pot. Add the turmeric and a few sprinkles of asafetida, if using. Heat the spices and oil for a few minutes, then remove from the heat and toss in the vegetables. Pour in the masala (spice) mixture, adding the garlic powder and a small palm-full of salt.
Toss everything to coat, adding in the lemon juice and a splash of hot water if you need more liquid. In cold weather, you can jar the achar and leave it outside to sit overnight. In warm weather, refrigerate immediately.
Achar will keep well-sealed, for 4-6 weeks. Shake the jar before serving.