R Ashwin's Views On Learning Hindi Are Being Given The Wrong Spin

K Balakumar

Jun 28, 2024, 06:15 PM | Updated 06:38 PM IST

Star spinner R Ashwin at the book launch event (Photo: Penguin India/X)
Star spinner R Ashwin at the book launch event (Photo: Penguin India/X)
  • In his book, the celebrated offie draws on his experience to share views on the language issue and Hindi dominance in professional cricket discourse.
  • A few years ago, I was sent a manuscript of a book penned by the ghostwriter of a well-known sportsperson. The publisher friend who sent me a copy wanted to know my views on the potential of the possible book.

    Reading the stuff, I felt that it was a bit tame, in that there weren't too many interesting anecdotes or events that lay readers could sink their teeth into.

    When I got back to my friend, he told me they were not going ahead with the book project anyway, as the sportsperson was not keen to touch upon some controversial topics related to his sport.

    "We need some buzz for the book, and without taking on some edgy aspects of the sport, that may be impossible," my friend sighed to me, breaking into a lengthy spiel on how contentious takes are needed for any book to create a splash.

    Of course, as anyone connected with the media will tell you, controversies are usually manipulated — yes, that’s the word — to bring the spotlight on anything that is hitting the market, be it a film or book.

    This being the media reality, I was not surprised by the kerfuffle around Indian cricketer Ravichandran Ashwin's recent pronouncements on learning Hindi.

    At a launch event for I Have the Streets: A Kutty Cricket Story, published by Penguin Random House India and written by the respected cricket writer Sidharth Monga, the crafty off-spinner spoke about the disadvantages of not knowing Hindi as a cricketer from south India.

    In a chat with Radhakrishnan, Content Head, Chennai Super Kings, Ashwin opined, "Not knowing Hindi can be proudly expressed as ‘Hindi theriyadu, poda‘. Alternatively, it can be viewed as ‘If we don’t learn it, it could be difficult‘, a mindset that can lead to significant personal growth."

    Offie On The Ball

    As usual, Ashwin was practical in his opinion. 'Hindi theriyadu, poda' is a provocative line that the Dravidian sections have been using in the face of some problematic attempts to push Hindi into Tamil Nadu by the powers that be.

    The spinner's view is that while it can be a proud slogan to own as a protest, it can also mean losing out on opportunities for growth.

    There was nuance in his carefully chosen words. But, as usual, Dravidiologists were quick to pounce on him. A Tamil Brahmin like him, even without such views, is always a pet target for Dravidian bigots.

    Admittedly, the Hindi language issue is a long-festering emotive one that goes back to the 1960s. The problem has not been resolved in the nearly six decades since it blew up in a big way in Tamil Nadu.

    It is a fact there have been many efforts, both officially and unofficially, to push Hindi in these parts. On the other hand, the protest against Hindi imposition has also led to local language chauvinism in the state. Striking a balance in such a polarised environment has been tough.

    But Ashwin's opinions on the language issue have not been brought up just to kick up a stir for the sake of his new book. If anything, the thinking cricketer that he is, Ashwin seems to have put his mind to the matter.

    In his book, he deals with the language issue quite honestly and elaborately. He states in unequivocal terms that players who don't know Hindi will find the dressing room environment of Indian teams, especially in junior cricket (under 15 and 17), forbidding and unwelcome.

    There is a kind of Hindi boys club aura, he suggests. "Everybody else just assumes everyone knows Hindi and sets off speaking their own version of Hindi. I find it rude and alienating that no one makes an effort to talk to the one boy who doesn’t know their language," Ashwin writes from experience in the locker room as an India under-17 player.

    Humiliated For Not Knowing Hindi 

    The off-spinner says even his stuttering efforts to manage with his rudimentary Hindi were made fun of by other boys. "I make an effort to talk, but by the time I process what is being said and translate my Tamil response into bookish Hindi, they have moved on. All that is legible to me is their laughter," he says.

    "All I can make out is that they are making fun of me, but I don’t know what exactly is being said. If they speak Hindi as it is written in textbooks, I might still understand it, but this is completely different. I feel left out, humiliated and intimidated."

    Ashwin leaves no one in doubt about what he endured during his under-17 stint. "...every day has been a contest, trying to fit myself in what seems like a foreign country where Hindi is the only language and being a student is an insult."

    Strong words. But mind you, this was his experience as a teenager, and others in the same room were also callow youth whose skills in a language other than their mother tongue were mostly no better.

    As young boys, such groupism based on language, even if not agreeable, is expected.

    Ashwin, it seems, kind of understood this tendency quite early. The realist that he was, he quickly cottoned on to the fact that to feel part of the Indian team, which he wished to be part of for long, Hindi was necessary. He mentions this with matter-of-fact smartness. 

    Ashwin talks about how, upon his return to Chennai from his under-17 games, he was looked up to by the fellow players and coaches.

    "I train in my India team gear. I can overhear people talking about how good I have become. They point to my kit. They call me the ‘India player’ behind my back. Bowlers are tentative bowling to me. I have a presence. Oh god, it means something," he says, and his next sentence is: "I enrol myself in private Hindi classes."

    In other words, Ashwin was ready for the long haul as a player in India colours. He was equipping himself, just as he was amping up his bowling arsenal with the sodukku ball.

    For those who may think Ashwin has no sense of belonging to Tamil, the second-highest Test wicket-taker in India after Anil Kumble wears his love for the language on his sleeve.

    "I am proud of the language we speak. Madrasi to others, Tamil is a delightful language befitting the colourful, full-of-life city that Chennai is. I speak a language that is native to us," he says.

    He also takes potshots in his book at those who disparagingly say, ‘Yeh toh Madrasi hai. (Oh, he is a Madrasi.)'

    "I am from Madras, and I am proud of it even though it is now called Chennai. I will forever be proud of the city on whose streets I’ve spent most of my life."

    Having batted for Tamil and Chennai in such passionate terms in his book, it must be funny for Ashwin to see himself pilloried for suggesting that learning Hindi can be of practical help, like in this clip where he impishly makes fun of a reporter's shuddh (pure) Hindi.

    Anyway, what Ashwin said was common-sense logic. Those who oppose him, of course, have none of it. They are giving the wrong spin to, well, a great spinner’s views.

    And, in any case, there should be no surprise in an offie suggesting that "to be successful, one has to read the doosra well."

    Get Swarajya in your inbox.