“Then where you are from?” I was asked this question on my second day with Etasha Society, as I observed a class on Spoken English at the Mori Gate center in North Delhi. Eight or nine trainees, probably around my own nineteen years, sat around the edges of the room in wicker chairs that are called, as I would later learn, modhas. The floor was scuffed with mud from the rain outside, and the center was gray to match the overcast sky, but the trainees, as always, were bright, energetic, and delighted.
I introduced myself as Sagaree. I told the trainees that I lived and studied in the United States, and that I was here in Delhi only for a few weeks, and so I wanted to spend time teaching English and writing for Etasha. When I spoke, my mouth creaked from disuse, and my American accent broadened and then cut off my English. I looked, I think, much like a Dilli-wallah, I followed Hindi, but my speech had immediately marked me as an NRI (non-resident Indian).
“I’m from A-mer-i-ca, I sup-pose,” I enunciated as I had been instructed. “But my family, my grandparents, my cousins, my aunts, they are all here, so I come to India when I can.”
The boy who had asked the question was named Vicki, and his hair was puffed upwards to frame his quick face. At my small speech, he settled backwards, leaning against the wall to indicate that the issue had been resolved.
“So, you are native Indian!”
This was my first response. In my time in Delhi, outside and inside Etasha, I got many more new responses, some impressed, some derisive. One time, a 22-year-old relative asked me if American college was anything like the movie American Pie. Another, a man selling leather chappals (sandals) rolled out that his cousin was a doctor in California, and did I know him?
I fielded these questions with some fascination, but mainly, I was fully involved in trying to understand this city, and how to fit with the rolling, weaving, flood of energy that is Delhi. I altered my speech to make it higher and sweeter. A hand extended to join the joke. A question and a shrug at the end of each sentence. I learned to pick up the gaps in conversation like the lulls between honks on the overpass. I enunciated my Ts. I fell into a web of extended family. I learned to fiercely depend on chai twice a day, cheeni alagh (sugar on the side). I enjoyed that when I ordered onion rings at an American-themed restaurant, they were pakoras (fritters), when I ordered Mexican fajitas, they had paneer (Indian cheese). Even the dust in Delhi moved stubbornly, demanding its own flavor.
I became a buzzing collection of “Woh kya hai?”s (what is that?). I gained a whole new set of vocabulary: NGOs (non-governmental organizations) instead of non-profits, standards instead of grades, batches instead of graduating class. I learned that I am an NRI, or less politely put, an ABCD (American Born Confused Desi). But even so, it was ridiculous that I had not heard of Sachin Tendulkar or Honey Singh.
Much of what I learned was from the Etasha Society trainees. The organization takes vulnerable youth from Delhi, students who are educated through tenth or twelfth standard but have no formal job prospects. Etasha then fills gaps in the trainee’s education so the trainee becomes the kind of employee needed in Delhi’s developing office world. At the end of most training programs, the trainees are placed with companies Etasha works with, and sent to interview for salaried work.
Even in the short time I spent at Etasha, I saw the students, my own age, open up and communicate confidently, learn to assert themselves, and I saw the earnestness with which they practiced English and asked about the world outside Delhi.
The trainees’ stories were unfamiliar. They were from neighborhoods I had never heard of: Seemapura, Madhanpur Khadar, Tigri, Dakshanpuri. They had stories of farming in Uttar Pradesh and grocery businesses in Haryana, or of growing, schooling, and becoming an adult in one Delhi neighborhood. They told me about how Etasha was helping them deal with their anger, or pass on important knowledge to their family. One trainee was called Bhagwan, his father painted houses, and he wanted to be a consultant. Vipnesh, meanwhile, had tried to join the army, and was at Etasha finding another way to help people. Deepak dreamed of being a manager, like his father in the railways. Durga was twenty two and married, had a daughter, and was learning English to teach it to her. Every single one was chipper, happy to share, happy to be sitting in a marble floored classroom with bare feet.
In the last week, I held a conversation class with a batch that had been in Etasha for a few months. From the first week to the twelfth, there is always a huge difference in the confidence and expression of the batch as a whole. The trainees wanted to pick a topic of conversation. They settled on “India.” We drew up categories: food, history, festivals, culture, sports, geography, and brainstormed words to fit under them. We started with culture, and I scrawled the words they threw out on a whiteboard just a little too small for the endeavor.
“Different. Ma’am, culture is very different.”
“Greeting is good!” I said, scrawling, and scrawling, and then turning back to the room full of students. I pieced together some Hindi, so that I could practice too.
“You know, the first day I was here in India, I met my Dadu’s sister, and I said,” putting out my hand to indicate I had tried to shake hands with my wizened Dadiji, “Hello!”
The whole class laughed on cue, kindly, as a small nod to the poor American girl who didn’t quite understand. We kept writing, and I learned that you make pakoras (fritters) for Holi, that the Old Fort is beautiful, that the Yamuna River has serious pollution problems.
After class, in the lobby of Etasha’s second Centre for Career Development I heard sounds of Maggi noodles being made and the staff good-heartedly mocking one another. I told the trainees, all in cut-cut-cut fractured Hindi that the trainees praised absurdly, that I was there because I wanted to teach.
“Me as well,” said Vikram, who lovingly wore a green zip-up hoodie every day. He said he wanted to teach English, some day after the data entry job Etasha would place him in.
“Where you will teach?” he asked. “America, or back to India? India is very good.”
It was the trainee who immediately assumed that I belonged in Delhi’s lovely chaotic song, without my asking for it, maybe without my deserving it. I didn’t have the words in Hindi to tell him that my whole heart was heavy with mismatched language, or that every style of speaking my tongue found felt just a little wrong. I was all filled up with longing and dust and waiting for a place to settle.
I told Vikram I hadn’t decided yet.
Sagaree Jain is an undergraduate student at the University of California at Berkeley. She studies South Asian History and minors in English. Etasha Society is based in New Delhi and often takes international volunteers to conduct Spoken English classes and other operations around the office. For information about Etasha and how to get involved, go to etashasociety.org.