Time for Class

Krishna Kavita Kasturi

By Krishna Kavita Kasturi

Continuing from last week’s story, ‘So What Do You Want To Know About India?’

Now, time for class. I teach language and culture – specifically Telugu – to American diplomats headed for India. Try this exercise right now. Think of the one language you have always wanted to learn, and go to www.livemocha.com and register for free. See how long it takes for you to learn a foreign alphabet!

I tried it with Farsi and – you know what? – a language website can only help me so much. What really helps me is watching their films. Iranian films have taught me more of their culture, country and language than any CD, Book or Instructor. So you see I am a “visual” learner, also “aural”. A contextual learner. I can be taught anything, any day, and I will find something worthwhile to take away from it by making connections, looking for underlying similarities.

This is true of most Indians of my generation: starved for resources we grabbed at whatever we were offered, without questioning too much. Oh! and the fight for those meagre resources, remember? Very few American students understand this, or operate in this way. Given how their society and education system functions, despite the overall sense that learning is an independent activity, many are used to being told what to do! What a surprise! They need a framework, a structure, a time-table, a route-map, a set goal – for an Indian not used to being led, this can be constraining. Like breaking down the dance routine so much so that you lose the fun of dancing.

Nevertheless, it leads to a greater democratic and systematic process. A standardized methodology may be scoffed at, and may not work for everyone, but to have it in place is very good practice. Especially given that most of the students come with a deadline and a benchmark to cross. For six to eight months they will have to empty out their innards so they can see and speak in another culture, on which they will be tested before they can be sent abroad.

However much you prepare them, there will be something you forgot to mention. Right hand only, for eating and gift-giving. No shoes in Gurudwaras, Temples, Mosques. Cover your head in certain rural areas; please do NOT in urban areas. No, we don’t ask if a woman is pregnant unless it is obviously evident that she is, although we are an extremely nosy kind of people otherwise. No, we don’t ever divide the bill/check at the restaurant under the waiter’s nose as he watches, smirking at your tight-fistedness. Oh! Please remember to always share whatever you eat, will you? But not if you have already tasted it… that would be inappropriate… but (Is now a good time to talk about Caste?). No, we don’t really understand what you mean by “space”, physical or mental. Emotional space? (ayiyyo! who wants THAT? Is it why Americans have so many psychological issues?)


Then there is a HUGE comedy viz English. The American assumes, naturally so, that what he speaks is English. The Indian assumes, naturally so that only she speaks proper, grammatically correct, well-phrased, parsed, conjuncted, conjugated English. So when these two English worlds collide, one conveying directness and the other obtuseness, there are bound to be a few scandals.

Take this incident where the use of a certain word caused havoc in the Indian media, because it was misconstrued. “Dirt” is Mother Earth in a country where classical dancers bow down each time, before and after dancing, to ask the Goddess forgiveness, the dancers humbly paying their respects for stamping her (Nature is God for Indians na, everything is!).Very offensive for us to hear dharti ma being referred to as “dirt”. Dirty for Indians is being impure. The worst epithet you could ever be given. An American on the other hand would use a word like “dirty” to mean “covered with dust”, with no offence. “Dusty” is the word Indians would use instead. Goodness! One says “dirty” and the other thinks: INSULT!

Maybe it would be a mighty good idea to teach Americans headed to India to speak English as well? Indian English.

Though they will have to find someone else to teach that, since most days I have my mouth full, with Tamizh and Hindi gurgling out on different floors, and one time it was Urdu (Dakhani) too! Since the students will undoubtedly benefit from conversing with native speakers, ‘South-Indians’ like me who are blessed by geography and the Kendriya Vidyalayas, who know more than a dozen Indian tongues are called in for conversational practise. When I speak Hindi I am mistaken for a ‘Naarth-Indian’ by a ‘Madrasi’. My Tamizh has street-cred since I learned it on the streets of Coimbatore. The tough part is keeping the languages separate. Some days I switch four languages in four hours.


This I have concluded: that a language makes for a culture and therefore makes the people. Study the language and you will know what to expect from its denizens. The hardiest is Tamizh, it will stick to you like a leech. Even though I am Telugu, I let out an ‘Appidiya’ (is that so? in Tamizh) more often than I want to! Hindi, especially the Sanskritized kind sounds like Telugu but for the ‘du, mu, vu, lu’ endings, which makes it quite curt and sure-shot, albeit extremely precise and logical. Telugu is all ebbs and flows, languid and lyrical. Dakhani (God alone knows how many times I have had to talk about the difference between Urdu and Hindi, Hindi and Hindustani, Hindustani and Urdu) a dialect I grew up making fun of, since Doordarshan Hindi was the standard, the Hyderabadi Hindi as some would call it, is a wonderful mix of Sanskrit, Hindi, Farsi, Arabi, Marathi, Kannada, Telugu, English and Allah Jaane what else. It is now my favourite mode of addressing anyone from Hyderabad, Telangana.

Anyway: the challenge is to make the diplomat learn to speak your tongue in a little more than half a year. From scratch. They get to learn the alphabet, which usually takes two weeks, and then slowly climb their way up through mountains of Nouns, Verbs, Modifiers. Grammar is a Rift Valley that stumps many. After the first few months of baby steps, when the student can read and figure out what the alphabet is doing, it is time to introduce Topics on which s/he may have to expound on while serving at post. Economics, Education, Environment, Politics. The going gets tougher but you trudge on, Semper Fidelis. Using Role Plays (acting out the characters in a real life scenario), Interviews (instructors are queried on their country of origin), Narratives (where the student presents an in-depth talk on a particular subject), she or he gathers enough material and experience to face the examiner at the “end of training” test conducted by the institute. They have to do better than just factual reporting, that is if they can hold forth on any subject and talk of concepts and in abstraction they get rewarded amply.

I have always been pleasantly surprised at how much a student grasps within this short time, and many get a feel for India, develop a love which I am happy to contribute towards. After all, these are the very people who will influence how the US relates to my country in a few years, and I would definitely feel fulfilled if some of what we had discussed in class had a positive affect in their foreign policy dealings hereafter.


BBC and VOA news have been useful teaching tools in many languages, as is Rosetta Stone. But what of Telugu, which has no such presence? Relatively new in language circles (albeit a recognized Dravidian Classical language spoken by 75 million people around the world), it is spoken by one of the largest community of Indians in the US. But it has virtually NO known commercial resource in terms of language training (though a few universities in the US have Telugu departments). Native speakers of the language themselves want to learn Java or other lucrative computer languages: they don’t want to waste precious dollar hours on their own mother-tongue.

So you teach with what you have. Say you have assisted in a commercial film or two, you show that in class in the US, and then your students meet the Hero of the Film at a consulate party in Hyderabad once they go there. They tell him about it, and a unique bond is established! Not a bad module for starters. Little did I know while I was assisting in the making of Godavari in 2005 that this off-beat film would be such a commercial hit, and that I would use it as a resource to teach Telugu to my students three years hence!

Washington DC provides ample opportunity to go to museums for free unlike other cities, and a student keen on Art or History or Politics has numerous learning possibilities. Going to a Portrait Gallery one can describe the history surrounding the various US presidents, and dwell on how one would have painted one’s own favourite president better – in President Kennedy’s painting, for example, his suave demeanour and debonair air comes through in the larger than life portrait via lush blue green bold strokes. Not so President Clinton! The poor man is a jumble of squares and rectangles, with a distorted mouth (intentional?) and necessitating a viewing from far, by squinching one’s eyes. Is it because he was a tough man to comprehend, despite his easy charm? So you ask your student in the target language ‘How would you paint him yourself?’ and see where she goes with it – Single color. Why? Blue color. Why? Only the face. Why? The WHY is a very pertinent question that explores the workings of the mind more than any other W. It is the mark of Thinkers.


What we want to do with any learning, most of all in language acquisition, is to THINK in the language. Unless one does that, the ability to comprehend the culture at its core is lost.

Telugu is onomatopoeic, hence earning the distinction of being a very musical language. This was why Kannada,Tamil, Malayalee and Marathi composers routinely wrote in it. Here, using Mudras, dance gestures or expressions, to convey the meaning of the alliteration has proved very successful. gaDa gaDaa to convey fluency of speech, kila kilaa or paka pakaa which denotes happy laughter, bhaga bhagaa is for the crackling flames of a bonfire, chaka chakaa for a job quickly done.

Vidya Vinaya Prapti Rastu was a constant blessing I received as a child – may you attain knowledge and humility. That is, a knowledge which does not convert you into a supercilious person. Which does not alienate you. Which keeps you rooted. From my wanderings I have gathered that there is no better way than to teach by example. The joy I get in learning something new, in being part of a team, in sharing information and know-how, that is palpable to anyone around me. That joy is not dependent on how much I make per hour. With that comes incomparable self-assurance and disdain for the mundane, and then to go forth and teach! Only then will it allow a teacher to inspire and motivate those who come to them for Sadhana. Irrespective of class or creed.

Indian Languages – definitely Telugu – have no original specific word for fun. We have plenty for happiness, bliss and pleasure. Nothing for fun or cute or handsome or ugly or weekend. But then in Telugu, Happiness is a Verb. So you can safely conclude, going by the presence and absence of certain nouns, adjectives and verbs, that this culture places emphasis on finding real bliss every day, not just on a weekend, a culture where everyone is beautiful and no one is really considered ugly (Hence the Moustachioed Heroes!)

Then there is this wonder of the Continuous/Progressive Tense: Indian languages are constantly on the move,since that is the tense of choice. Add to that the Telugu distinction where the Habitual Tense is in the Future rather than the Present. Now watch the fun unfold:

Expat with digestive disorderDoes the Doctor come to the Clinic daily?

Compounder with nothing to doShe will be coming daily.

Expat with a slowly developing anger disorder: You mean she will be coming in from tomorrow, yes?

Compounder with something to do, such as making the Expat’s life miserableDaily she will be coming no? You are not listening aa?

Expat who has decided at this very moment not to stay a second longer in IndiaThere is no need to be rude…

Compounder enjoying his power over the poor goraWe are like this only!

So yes, after three years of dealing with many wonderful, rounded and intelligent individuals, whenever an Indian tells me Americans are ignorant of world affairs or geography, I tell them to look at the latest ad campaign of the THE HINDU. Any nation that buries its head in the sand or cocks its neck too high is in danger of losing its critical thinking prowess. Though in all nations there will be a few who will go to great lengths to explore and enrich their own minds and those of the others, through travel and dialogue.

While I chatter with my student at the wonderful cafe in ‘Politics and Prose’, a family-owned bookstore that has withstood the ravages of recession, few heads turn: this is after all a city where a rainbow of languages is created every second. We know we belong to a rarefied group, she, learning a language that will be spoken ONLY in that small area of India and I, having this opportunity to research and advocate about India, serving my Motherland from across the seven seas. And when someone looks at my notes in the Metro and asks, “What is that language?” I answer, “It’s Telugu.”

Building a tenuous, intangible bridge in a moving Metro train, I am content.

Krishna Kavita Kasturi is a qualified engineer who has tried her hand at everything from Journalism to Filmmaking and now Teaching. When she is not studying Kuchipudi or Tango she is busy traveling to countries No One Ever Goes To, so as to share what she knows of Indian Culture, Cuisine and Yoga. People call her a Connector and a Motivator. What she really, really enjoys though is serious conversations on spiritual matters – and the idiosyncrasies of human beings.

3 Responses to Time for Class

  1. Manas says:

    Such a valuable and nice presentation you have given us. Its true that with any learning, most of all in language acquisition, is to THINK in the language and that is true that without that, the ability to comprehend the culture at its core is almost lost.

    Different culture creatures are invited to get in touch with us on http://www.manasjaiswal.com/

  2. Satish Thiagarajan says:

    The WHY is a very pertinent question that explores the workings of the mind more than any other W. It is the mark of Thinkers.

  3. Y.V.Raman says:

    Interesting presentation and certainly a delight to connect to someone who is versatile and with verve. All the best in your endeavor to reach India to the West.

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