As a very young child, my son Jai had an unaccountable aversion to learning any language other than English. Yet, I was determined to teach him Hindi, my mother tongue, to ensure he did not miss out on a culture and heritage for lack of simple knowledge of its language.
I would point to his clothes, toys and books and encourage him to respond with their Hindi names. Eventually, he spoke a few words — he could point to a chair and call it kursi and say the numbers from 1 to 10 in Hindi. But he did not know simple phrases such as “How are you?” or “My name is Jai.” He could not have a conversation in Hindi.
That all changed during a trip to India when Jai was 4. I was sitting with my mother on the floor, shelling peas. As we were laughing and talking, Jai wandered over, picked up a pea pod with great curiosity and asked what it was. It is mattar, my mother told him. Peas? he wondered. Inside this? He loved the fact that he could open the pod and find a treasure. He opened one, then another and another. He sat still, which in itself was an achievement. He began to listen to us, to ask questions.
Some mothers like to color with their young children, some read books, some watch television. I could never have imagined our time together would be used to shell peas.
Once we were back in the States, I searched supermarkets and farmers’ markets for peas in pods. I rinsed them, patted them dry and waited for 3 o’clock so I could pick up Jai from school and we could shell peas. When pea pods were hard to find, I cheated, more than once passing off edamame as peas. Rarely were we able to eat the peas for dinner; by the time Jai’s tiny fingers got them out of the pods, they were too squished or had gone straight into his mouth. I didn’t care as long as we sat and shelled and talked.
We sat on the floor and started by sorting the pea pods, his fingers working furiously to separate the little baby pods from the mother pods and the daddy pods. Some days we named the piles of pods for his school friends — Zack, Sam, Casey. Then we counted. Jai could count to 20 in Hindi by then, and finished counting in English. On a few occasions, we reached 30 together.
Then came Jai’s favorite part, the time for me to tell him stories — in Hindi. We always started with the story of the witch, the one who would come and make a home in your hair if you went out without drying it on a cold day. The story would somehow segue into what Buzz Lightyear or Spider-Man would do if he found this witch. (An interesting question, since we could not find a bit of hair on either of their heads.) Each story had a different ending, depending on which action figure was stationed next to Jai for the afternoon.
After the witch would come the story of an Indian princess who lived in a golden castle. I wanted it to end with her marrying a handsome prince. My son, however, would add his 4-year-old’s spin and American viewpoints. Sometimes the princess would be a doctor, usually a veterinarian, and would end up marrying Shrek. Other times, the gentle princess would be transformed into a superhero and I was pleasantly challenged to come up with the Hindi names for laser guns and robotic evildoers.
One day, Jai asked me, “Mom, apne kahania kaha see seekhi?”
Where did I learn the stories? Why, from Bahenjee, of course.
By now Jai knew that word meant “older sister,” and his curiosity was piqued since I had no older sister. She was not related to me, I explained. It was a term often used as a mark of respect for an older person. A distant relative by marriage, she lived in a quiet part of my dadi’s house in Delhi. Dadi, my father’s mother, lived in what most people refer to as an Indian bungalow that housed a joint family — 14 people on an average day, not including the various relatives who would show up out of the blue.
With her crooked teeth, thinning white hair, flowing white sari and shrill voice, Bahenjee lived on the fringes of Dadi’s household. She had her own small area — steel almirah or armoire, charpai or cot, and wildly painted and loud pictures of various gods on the mostly bare and peeling wall. On a shelf were statues of gods, incense sticks, fresh jasmine flowers, silver coins. Bahenjee generally rose at an ungodly hour, 4 a.m., and did the work of an alarm clock for the house, singing prayers tunelessly at the top of her voice.
“Ab who kaha hai?” asked Jai. Where is she now? I had no idea.
“Nanu se poochege?” He pointed to the phone for me to call his grandfather in India to ask him. I did, and my father told us that after my grandparents died, Bahenjee went to live with her son. She had since died.
Jai asked me more and more about her and her stories and the memories came flooding back.
On my summer vacations, when I was a child, I would look forward to going to Dadi’s house so I could be with Bahenjee. For she was one of the best storytellers in the world. You and I shell peas, I told Jai; Bahenjee and I would make sev, noodles, as she shared stories. We would sit together in the hot Delhi sun after her ritual of sweeping the concrete courtyard with a wooden broomstick, brushing away dust and dirt I couldn’t see, and laying out a bamboo mat, or chitai, for us to sit on. She would spread newspapers in front of the mat and peel a few Indian oranges, santras, for me to eat. Then she would bring out the chickpea dough.
Bahenjee would make small logs of the dough, and she taught me how to hold each one between my fingers as if I were counting the beads of a rosary. Away we would go, preparing small bits of sev as princesses crossed paths with evil witches. Even as she talked, Bahenjee outpaced me in making sev. She would go through containers of dough while I was still struggling with my first log. She never seemed to notice that I generally made a mess and seemed to be interested only in the stories. Occasionally, she would ask me to wet a muslin cloth to cover the dough as it started to dry up. We would sit in that glowing Delhi heat for hours and I would listen, mesmerized.
As I recalled Bahenjee’s stories for Jai, it occurred to me that the tales she had told me had been in Multani — I learned a dying language through her stories. All of the stories were set in my father’s birthplace, Multan, a part of India until the separation of India and Pakistan. Bahenjee spoke Hindi, the more colloquial language, as well, but seemed to prefer telling the stories in her own language, stopping to translate only if I looked totally lost. She would recount painfully how she was forced to leave her motherland. She would talk about my father’s childhood, about her own family, about the food and the festivities.
Her language connected me to a place I would never see and a culture I had never known. No one in my family ever returned to Multan. Bahenjee chronicled a history that was lost in a war over religion and hate. I learned prayers and nursery rhymes in Multani.
Bahenjee’s stories ended, inevitably, when the dough did. I have always wondered what she did in the winters.
Learning to appreciate another culture through its language, through the words of an old woman who has seen life and lived to tell about it, now feels like a blessing. When my parents told us their childhood stories, we rolled our eyes. It always seemed to be intended as a lecture, prefaced with, “When I was your age . . .” Bahenjee’s stories were different. They transported me, intrigued me.
Several years have gone by since Jai and I started counting peas. At the age of 8, he speaks Hindi, though not flawlessly. Often he mixes English and Hindi words to create his own language. He has even picked up a few stray words of Multani.
Now, the questions he asks in his Hindi-English mix are no longer simple. Kya sab Iraqi log bad hai? Are all Iraqi people bad?
Why are those soldiers carrying banndooks, guns?
Why do people die, will I die? Aap bhi? Will you?
Jai no longer struggles with the language; now it’s my turn. I struggle for the right words, the right answers, in any language.
(This essay first appeared in the Washington Post’s Style section several years ago and was nominated for an IACP award)