August 14, 2010 | Hindi
A Gastronomical Approach
Indian food will not teach you Hindi, but it tastes amazing.
As of this morning, I had been stalled on Pimsleur lesson 11 for at least two days. I was finding it impossible. I am pretty sure I had done it more than four times, and I was still messing up a lot. So I decided to give up and go on to 12 and see what happened. Sometimes you just have to say, enough is enough.
At 10:59 a.m. I was on the floor stretching when my Pimsleur lesson 12 told me, “The man is going to propose various things you can do together. You are going to contradict him every time.”
I successfully contradicted everything. I moved on to lesson 13. Some tasks are simply easier than others.
Now, I said at the beginning of this project that it would not be a food project, which is what many ostensible language projects turn into. Gastronomical adventures do not yield language benefits; they yield bigger asses.
Sixth Street Between First and Second Avenues: Indian Restaurant Row
Today, however, I made an exception, because I thought it would be fun to go to East Sixth Street between First and Second avenues, where there are numerous Indian restaurants. I was in the mood for Indian food. Brandt, too.
When I first moved to New York in 1990, my boyfriend at the time and I went to Sixth Street regularly. My favorite weekend activity, in fact, was to walk from our Chelsea apartment over to the East Village for a cheap Indian meal, generally at a restaurant called Panna on the south side of Sixth, then wander around and buy books from sidewalk vendors for ridiculously small amounts of money, and in a book volume that far exceeded my actual reading volume. (Buy only as many books as you read, people! Otherwise they become paper monuments to one’s personal illiteracy!)
Anyway, as I said, there are many restaurants on Sixth Street. And there are often people standing in front of them, trying to tempt passers-by by extolling (not always with great clarity) the virtues of their respective eating establishments.
Taj Restaurant, 310 East Sixth Street
Taj Mahal, 318 East Sixth Street
And Nearby Raj Mahal
And Mere Feet Away, Sonar Gaow
We found that the original Panna restaurant was gone (though an offshoot of it that I remembered from years ago, Panna II, was still nearby on First Avenue).
Two Stories’ Worth of Food, First Avenue
And Yet Another Food Option
After surveying all our options, we settled on a restaurant called Mitali East, which was near or maybe even on the old Panna site.
Mitali East: The Approach
Mitali East Menu: Hard on Indecisive People
It was a beautiful evening. Meaning neither humid, nor rainy, nor hot—a happy combination of characteristics for a New York summer night. Therefore, Brandt and I decided to sit outside.
We ended up at a table next to a woman who, we soon realized, had dedicated her meal to loudly bossing her newly widowed or divorced mother about every aspect of her life: staging her house, selling her house, managing her finances, etc.
We did our best to ignore her. We studied the menu. We drooled.
With Menus, I Am a Decider
Indian-food menus do that to one, I find.
Our waiter seemed depressed. He took our order, for chicken tikka masala and lamb saag, with a profound lack of joy. While we awaited our food, Brandt and I read and wrote a little. It was very pleasant to be outside.
I came across the following instructive excerpt in my Teach Yourself Hindi book: “There are occasions when an inherent vowel is not pronounced in the middle of a word, even though the spelling involves no conjunct. As a general rule, the inherent vowel remains silent in the second syllable of a word whose third character either includes a vowel sign…or is followed by a fourth syllable….This rule does not apply when the second or third syllable of the word has a conjunct.”
While I found that impenetrable for now, I do know (I think) that a conjunct in Hindi is two consonants smushed together with no intervening vowel. In such cases, they are written differently than they would be as two independent characters. A table in the first chapter of Teach Yourself Hindi lists 100 (yes, 100!) of the most common conjuncts. So in addition to learning the basic characters, you have to learn all these conjuncts.
Illiteracy is high among Hindi speakers, incidentally.
Back to the restaurant. Our food was good, despite the annoying woman and the depressed waiter. Without those things, it would have been even better. I had the same experience I always have when I eat Indian food, which is that when I finished, I wanted to order two more entrées. Somehow it is never enough.
New York Restaurants Padlock Their Plants
Brandt, Happy, with Food
Before we left, I stopped inside for the restroom. On my way out, I asked a waiter if anyone there spoke Hindi. He gestured towards a woman, who stepped forward to offer her Hindi services.
I said I had just begun studying the language and asked if I could try out a sentence on her to see whether she understood me. She began laughing, which I took as a yes.
I said (this is a rough transliteration), Me Hindi neHEE bolti hoon, mughur me toREE toREE sumajTEE hoon. That meant (I hoped), “I don’t speak Hindi, but I understand a little.”
She nodded and said, “You’re the same as me.” She explained that she could understand Hindi, but couldn’t speak it (her native language is Bengali). She learned Hindi from TV, she said.
I didn’t tell her that I was a million miles from being the same as she was in my Hindi skills. I did not point out that I could speak a teeny tiny bit and understand even less. Instead I just said thank you. And left the restaurant quite pleased with myself.
Words had been spoken in Hindi, and words had been understood!