The woman who taught Dalrymple Hindi (and her other stories)

Jun 21, 2015, 08:04 IST | Anju Maskeri

Pallavi Singh is a Hindi tutor with a twist. A departure from the good ol’ textbook, this 24-year-old uses travel maps, crosswords, quizzes, coins, and more to make learning Hindi a fun and engaging experience for both Indians and expats. Anju Maskeri takes a class

We meet Pallavi Singh at a coffee outlet, which is a popular venue for her Hindi lessons class, feeling a mix of excitement tinged with a dash of nervousness as the last time we attended a Hindi class was over a decade ago. We are pleasantly surprised to meet our teacher; a 24-year-old who could easily pass off as a student. “I am not a typical teacher who probably makes her students rote learn “Namaste, Aap kaise hain?” in their first class. In fact, I do not teach from a textbook at all. For every class, I have a set of activities that correspond to that day's lesson. I use flashcards, quizzes, word scrambles and fill-in-the-blanks to turn the class into a fun and engaging experience. But I do give homework,” she smiles. As per the grading system, if you get more than 10 stars in a month and a ‘bahut badiya’, you get a free beer, she reveals with a grin. Some motivation, we think.

24-year-old Hindi tutor, Pallavi Singh
24-year-old Hindi tutor, Pallavi Singh

Necessity breeds profession
Singh’s tryst with the language happened out of necessity, eventually growing into a profession as well as a passion. “Although I never set out to become a Hindi teacher, I began teaching the language because I needed some extra income as I was planning to settle in Mumbai,” says Singh, who hails from Delhi. With an engineering degree under her belt but no inclination to pursue it, she came to Mumbai to study psychology at Sophia College For Women. “I could not find a suitable job and I didn’t want to ask my parents for money, so I messaged an international exchange student from Africa offering to teach him Hindi. He and his girlfriend were my first students,” says Singh who has never looked back ever since.

In the activity, students have to pick a coin and make sentences in Hindi using the number
In the activity, students have to pick a coin and make sentences in Hindi using the number

The session begins with a round of casual introductions in English, followed by explaining the intention behind learning Hindi. The reasons are as varied as the people themselves ranging from not wanting to be conned in Mumbai and trying to fit into a new culture to learning Hindi simply for the love of it. Singh says the tricky part is when students ask her for translations of words like sexy, hot, pain in the ass, what’s up, etc. “The translation for many words and phrases do not exist in Hindi and I am flummoxed when asked to provide alternatives to this,” she laughs. Singh also hopes to break stereotypes. “The tourists either have an exaggerated image of India the way it is represented in Bollywood or as a regressive land of snake charmers. Someone who works and lives here, has a better understanding of the culture,” she says.

Pallavi Singh gives Hindi lessons to her foreign students. Pics/SHADAB KHAN
Pallavi Singh gives Hindi lessons to her foreign students. Pics/Shadab Khan

Singh’s students are normally a motley bunch comprising models, students, official diplomats hailing from India and abroad. Singh is especially proud of having taught Hindi to acclaimed author William Dalrymple in Delhi last year. “I messaged him on Facebook on his birthday and I said I want a birthday cake when I am teaching you Hindi, indirectly hinting that I want to teach him Hindi,” she giggles. Much to her surprise, Darymple replied and was more than happy to be Singh’s student. "We had the sessions in Delhi for about three months, but the classes were sporadic because of his busy scheudle," she says. Singh proudly shows us the message Dalrymple posted on her Facebook page after a successful Hindi learning stint that read, ‘Pallavi Singh is a dream Hindi teacher and makes even the dullest chores of language-learning — grammar, verbs, gender — fun.’

This is a verbal touristy activity where you have to go from one city to another and cover atleast five places
This is a verbal touristy activity where you have to go from one city to another and cover atleast five places

No mean feat
Interestingly, Singh has also done her diploma in French. So why teach Hindi, we quiz her. “Why not?” she quips, and adds, “Hindi is my mother tongue and when you are in India and if you want to order food, call for a cab, or buy vegetables in a marketplace, you won’t use French.” According to Singh, the demand for good Hindi is not met. “Nobody takes the language seriously. Most of my students have had unpleasant experiences in the past, where the tutor is either too commercial or un uninterested in teaching the subject well. They just need somebody who will teach Hindi and that’s it,” says Singh, who offers a 30-hour Hindi course. She says it was no cakewalk to penetrate through the close knit circle of expats and build a network in the city as a language enabler. “I have no social connections in Mumbai. I had to generate enough trust for them to believe in my skills. It took time and patience, but it eventually happened,” says Singh who now has students from India, Spain, America, Brazil and France.

In 2014, Singh was invited to be a speaker at TEDx Talks, a global set of conferences run by the private non-profit Sapling Foundation devoted to spreading ideas. “My topic was Language Serving as a Tool for Social Inclusion. Making people socially inclusive need not necessarily imply dealing with the underprivileged section of society. The people I am dealing with, may not be suffering from poverty, but are socially excluded because they do not speak the language,” She cites a case of a Canadian who was married to an Indian woman for 12 years but had the confidence to speak in Hindi only with his dog, because he knew that the dog would not judge him.

Today, some of Singh’s students have become her closest friends. “I love the exposure I get through this job. I meet so many new people from all over the world every single day. It has truly given me some memorable experiences,” she gushes. The Delhiite dreams of opening a Hindi language school in Mumbai someday, afterall that’s her new home.

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