After doing an introductory class in spoken Kannada a few months ago, I decided I needed a refresher course. I found out there’s a retired man who teaches Kannada in my neighbourhood for free.
The classes take place in his garage which he has converted into a classroom. There is a white marker board and two rows of plastic chairs. A squeaky fan turns overhead.
The first class started after Diwali. There were six men and six women. I am the only foreigner. The others come from other parts of India. Some have been in Bangalore for over twenty years and are embarrassed to admit that they don’t speak Kannada. Only 55% of Bangalore’s cosmopolitan population is Kannada-speaking. Kannadigas have a flair for speaking other Indian languages, so since other languages like Tamil and Hindi are so widely spoken here, many ‘outsiders’ never learn the local language.
Mr Bhushan is in his 70s and is a product of his generation. On the first day he asked the ladies to sit in the first row and the ‘gents’ behind in the second row. At the next class, all the ladies had shown up but not the men. Mr Bhushan told us that he had observed that ladies tend to be naturally more curious than men. Hence their interest in languages. “Gents have other things on their mind. Like their work,” he concluded. Accordingly he has adapted the course content for us curious but diligent ladies. We are learning how to buy vegetables and saris in Kannada and how to speak to our ‘maidservants’.
Mr Bhushan’s English, liberally peppered with Indianisms, also reflects his generation. Perhaps not used to a ‘foreign accent’, he also has a hard time understanding me. My classmates always have to repeat my questions in a more 'Indian' way for him to understand!
His teaching method is simple. According to the topic, he asks us to write down sentences in English. He then writes down the Kannada equivalent on the whiteboard. Since the focus is on spoken Kannada, he uses the Latin alphabet and not the elegant swirls of the Kannada alphabet which would take me months to decipher.
Mr Bhushan teaches us ‘proper’ Kannada. Though many English words have snuck into the colloquial language, he insists on teaching us the proper vocabulary. So we have learnt that market is ‘marukatte’ and airport is ‘vimana nildana’. Also he wants us to say ‘yeke’ for why, instead of ‘yake’, which is more commonly used. “Yake is a low-class word,” he explains, “you should use yeke. This is a high-class word.”
We are also learning to use the polite form when addressing others. But when the topic turned to ‘communicating with the maidservant’, the hierarchy of language (and Indian society) again became apparent. “Now we will have a discussion between a housewife and her maidservant,” he announced. "Now we will use the impolite form. Also, ‘dayavitu’ (please) is not necessary here.” And so we learned some useful expressions for communicating with a maidservant, which started like this:
“You are always late.”
“Come early tomorrow. I want to go out.”
“First sweep and swab the house.”
“Wash the vessels properly.”
“Take 10kg wheat and get it powdered.”
I try out my Kannada with my ‘maidservant’ (but contrary to what my teacher has taught me, I don’t use the ‘impolite form’ with her). It’s also useful with shopkeepers and auto-rickshaw drivers who sometimes address me in Hindi, thinking I might be a North Indian. When I answer: “Hindi gotilla” (I don’t know Hindi), “You speak Kannada?!” is their surprised response. They then happily babble away to me in Kannada… I hope that one day I’ll be able to understand what they’re saying to me!