“Then where are you from?” a trainee asked me.
On my second day volunteering at ETASHA, I observed a class on Spoken English at the Mori Gate centre in North Delhi. Eight or nine trainees, probably about my own age – 19 – sat around the edges of the room in wicker chairs that are called, as I would later learn, “Moodha”. The rain outside made the centre’s floor mucky, and the centre itself was grey to match the overcast sky, but the trainees, as always, were bright, energetic, and delighted.
I introduced myself as Sagaree. I told the trainees that I lived and studied in the United States, and that I was here in Delhi only for a few weeks, and so I wanted to spend time teaching English and writing for ETASHA. When I spoke, my voice creaked from disuse, and my American accent broadened and then cut off my English. I looked, I think, much like a Dilli-wallah. I followed Hindi, but my speech had immediately marked me as an NRI.
“I’m from A-mer-i-ca, I sup-pose,” I answered the trainee’s question, enunciating my answer as I had been instructed by the facilitators. “But my family, my grandparents, my cousins, my aunts, they are all here, so I come to India when I can.”
The boy who asked me the question was Vicki. He was young, with hair puffed upwards and quick, tapping feet. At my short speech, he settled backwards, leaning against the wall, indicating that the issue had been resolved.
“So, you are native Indian!”
This was my first response. In my time in Delhi, outside and inside ETASHA, I got many more, some impressed, some derisive. One time, a 22- year-old relative asked me if American colleges were anything like the movie “American Pie”. Another, man selling leather chappals rolled out that his cousin was a doctor in California, and asked if I knew him.
I fielded these questions with some fascination, but mainly, I was fully involved in trying to understand this city, and how to fit with the rolling, weaving, flood of energy that is Delhi. I altered my speech to make it higher and sweeter. A hand extended to join the joke. A question and a shrug at the end of each sentence.
I learned to pick up the gaps in conversation like the lulls between honks on the overpass (is this the right vocab?). I enunciated my Ts.
I fell into a web of extended family.
I learned to fiercely depend on chai twice a day, cheeni alagh (sugar on the side). I enjoyed that when I ordered onion rings at an American-themed restaurant, they turned out to be “pakoras”, and when I ordered Mexican fajitas, they had paneer in them. Even the dust in Delhi moves stubbornly, demanding its own flavor.
I became a buzzing collection of “Woh kya hai?” (What’s that?). I gained a whole new set of vocabulary – “NGOs” instead of “non-profits,” “standards” instead of “grades,” and “batches” instead of “graduating class.” I learned that I am an NRI, or less politely put, an ABCD. But even so, it was ridiculous that I had not heard of Sachin Tendulkar or Honey Singh.
The trainees’ stories, too, were unfamiliar. They were from neighbourhoods I had never heard of – Seemapuri, Madhanpur Khadar, Tigri and Dakshanpuri. They had stories of farming in Uttar Pradesh and grocery businesses in Haryana, or of growing, schooling, and becoming an adult in their Delhi neighborhood. One is the story of a boy called Bhagwan whose father paints houses, and he wants to be a consultant. Vipnesh, on the other hand, had tried to join the army, but is now at ETASHA, finding another way to help people. Deepak dreams of being a manager just like his father is in the Railways. Durga is 22 years old and married, has a daughter, and is learning English to teach it to her. Each of those stories describes a chipper, cheerful person, happy to share, and happy to be sitting in a marble floored classroom with feet bare.
Last week, I held a conversation class at ETASHA’s Tigri centre with a batch that has been in ETASHA for a few months now. From the first week to the 12th, there is always a huge difference in the confidence and expression of the batch as a whole. The trainees wanted to pick a topic of conversation. They settled on “India.” We drew up categories – Food, History, Festivals, Culture, Sports, and Geography, and brainstormed words to fit under them. We started with Culture, and I scrawled the words they threw out on a whiteboard – just a little too small for the endeavor.
“Different. Ma’am, culture is very different.”
“Greet-ing is good!” I said, scrawling, and scrawling, and then turning back to the room full of students. I pieced together some Hindi, so that I could practice too.
“You know, the first day I was here in India, I met my Dadu’s sister, and I said,”–putting out my hand to indicate I had tried to shake hands with my wizened Dadiji– “‘Hello!’”
The whole class laughed on cue, kindly, as a small nod to the poor American girl who didn’t quite understand. We kept writing, and I kept learning – that you make “pakoras” for Holi; that the Old Fort is beautiful; that the Yamuna River has serious pollution problems.
After class, in the lobby of the centre, I heard the staff cooking Maggi and good heartedly mocking one another. I told the trainees, all in cut-cut-cut fractured Hindi that the trainees praised absurdly, that I was there because I wanted to teach.
“Me as well,” said Vikram, who lovingly wore a green zip-up hoodie every day. He said he wanted to teach English some day after the data entry job ETASHA would place him in. “Where will you teach?” he asked. “America, or back to India? India is very good.”
It was the trainees who immediately assumed that I belonged in Delhi’s lovely chaotic song, without my asking for it, maybe without my deserving it. I didn’t have the words in Hindi to tell him that my whole heart was heavy with mismatched language, or that every style of speaking my tongue found felt just a little wrong. I was all filled up with longing and dust and waiting for a place to settle.
I told Vikram I hadn’t decided yet.
About the author: Sagaree Jain is a second-year student of Literature and Indian History at University of Berkeley, California. She is currently volunteering with ETASHA.