Sharanya Deepak | Longreads | March 2019 | 13 minutes (3,366 words)
“Big bird, red eyes …” my teacher said, hinting me toward the new word I was learning. “Big, big bird … think about Central Delhi …” he added, excited for me to untangle his clues, for this big bird to fly into my brain. I was in my third Urdu class, ripening my vocabulary in a language I had always known but never formally studied.
“Gidh!” I finally screamed, the Urdu word for vulture, leaning onto my notebook. I thought about the times I would lay under trees in central Delhi and watch the birds perch on branches. Gidh, a vulture my friends and I once fed jam sandwiches, determined to get close. Gidh, the bird I once saw feed on an elderly man’s remains in Old Delhi. The simple word for a bird so ubiquitous in folklore, flushed in memories of warm Delhi winters, of stories told to me as a child, of faces of friends I had long forgotten, of the bird both revered and condemned in the city that raised me. But like the Urdu word for it, the vulture was long since gone from my life.
I grew up in a flurry of languages: in the beautiful, unfurling Tamil of my mother’s rage, in the curt English of my grandfather’s routine, in the effervescent Hindi of my father’s quickly changing moods. The concept of one native tongue had no meaning. Languages switched quickly in our house: New ones entered with meals presented by neighbors, unknown nurturing words appeared in the homes of friends. Our everyday lives were a wonderful linguistic mess, but Urdu — the language that floated in the backdrop of everything in Delhi, in songs, in corners of the old city, in anecdotes told by poetic uncles, in the history of the city’s kings — was the one that got away.