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How COVID-19 deterred me from learning Urdu

YANGON has a lot of Indians. I mean, a
lot of Indians. When I first arrived in
Yangon, I noticed their presence and
I found it very peculiar that are were Indian
in every single way, except for the language
they speak. The majority of the Indians I met
spoke with each other mostly in Burmese,
rather than their ancestral language of Tamil,
Telugu, Hindi, Urdu, or any other languages
from the subcontinent.
A person with a keen ear can still hear
many Indian languages spoken in Botahtaung,
Kyautada, Latha, Tamwe and Thingangyun
townships of Yangon. In Maymyo, Myitkyina,
Kalaymyo and Mogok, there is also a sizable
diaspora of Nepalis (called “Gurkha” here)
who have largely avoided Burmanisation and
continue to use Nepali in their daily lives.
The way I began learning Urdu is a bit
roundabout. I became friends with a Telugu
Hindu-Buddhist man named Sanjay, who
owns an eyeglasses shop. Sanjay is older than
I am and we don’t have much in common,
but he always enjoys my company. Before
COVID-19 hit, I would frequently visit his
store and talk about anything. Sanjay isn’t
college-educated, but he enjoys reading and
learning about so many different topics.
His mind is like an encyclopedia and he
can rattle off facts about different countries
and historical events effortlessly. All while
chewing betel nut.
Sanjay’s wife is Bihari, which means her
family’s ancestral roots are from the state
of Bihar in India. That means a lot to their
identity, but, just as Sanjay has never been to
Andhra Pradesh, the Telugu ancestral home,
no one from his wife’s closest family have
ever been to Bihar. Unlike Sanjay’s Burmese-
speaking Telugu family, though, his wife’s
family commonly spoke to each other in a
language similar to standard Hindi called
Ever since I had traveled to India in
2016, I had contemplated learning Hindi.
My biggest motivation was the first time I
stepped into a taxi fresh out of the airpor t in
Guwahati, Assam. The cab driver asked me
a question in Hindi and I correctly assumed
that he was asking me if I could speak Hindi
bhasa. I told him, “no, I don’t speak Hindi,” to
which he replied, “oh. Sorry, sir. No English.
Mind you, I was not in Delhi, but Guwahati,
where Assamese (Ahomia) is the dominant
language. Yet, the cab driver assumed he’d
be more likely to meet a foreigner who spoke
Hindi rather than Assamese.
I’ve come to enjoy Bollywood films and
some Hindi/Urdu songs, as well. So, I figured
that since I have learned about the large
presence of Bihari in Yangon, I would be able
to learn some Hindi from them.
Sanjay, however, advised me against
learning Hindi from Bihari. While Bhojpuri
is very similar to Hindi, it is only well-
understood by the Bihari and not by any
other Hindi speakers. Sanjay told me,
“if you want to learn standard Hindi, it’s
best just to learn Urdu. More people will
understand you if you speak Urdu and it
would be easier for you to pick up other
dialects of Hindi afterwards.” So, my
mission became clear: find Urdu speakers.
And I knew just where to go.
I always knew where the local mosque
was. It was just a walk down a side street
from the main road where I live. I often saw
old men in their taqiyah and kurta walking
toward that direction in the evening. I also
saw them taking their young children for
Qu’ranic and Islamic studies. I decided if
I wanted to learn Urdu, that would be the
place to start.
I biked over to the mosque, and chatted
with some men waiting outside. I told them
that I wanted to learn Urdu, but they said
they only knew a little. A little is still better
than nothing, so I figured they were just
low-balling me. But the next day a man
from the mosque struck up a conversation
with me – in English – about his career as
a driver for rich foreigners back in the day.
After chatting, he turned to another guy and
started speaking perfect Urd u.
He seemed like the ideal teacher, though
he was still reluctant to show off his Urdu
skills to me. He later introduced me to his
friend called Zaw Win who, to me, was an
average Burmese man of around 70-years-
old. Zaw Win was, in fact, born in Yangon
to a Gujarati Muslim father and a Shan
mother. “This guy is sayar-gyi (the guru)
when it comes to Urdu,” the old men said.
“He could teach you.” And, so, Zaw Win
became my Urdu teacher.
For a while, I would walk down to the
mosque, usually around the time of the
last daily prayers at 6pm. I would brave
the mosquitos and wait for the men to exit
the mosque (many Burmese and Indian
mosques don’t have prayer sections for
women). Zaw Win would then come out
and sit next to me or invite me to a teashop.
There we’d drink sweet tea, and go over
phrases and sentences in Urdu.
Chai piega?
Have you drunk your tea yet?
Khaana khalia?
Have you eaten yet?
Bahut bariyaa hai!
Very good!
Though it was a great introduction to the
language, and I was learning fast in the new
environment, I still found it hard to balance
work at study. And even though I had
enough short phrases to practice in other
areas of the city, the coronavirus soon put a
stop to my learning.
I ran into a friend of Zaw Wins at a
teashop near my house, and told him
I couldn’t continue our lessons due to
COVID-19. He agreed, and passed on the
message to Zaw Win. There were a lot of old
folks at the mosque, so naturally he shared
my concerns that they get sick from the
I was so warmly received by everyone
at the mosque that I wish I had gone to
them to learn Urdu earlier. Alas, like many
people, I didn’t expect COVID-19 to get as
bad as it did, to where self-isolation became
necessary. I do miss the friends I’ve made
and I hope they’re all doing well. I do want
to continue learning however I can, though,
and I hope to be able to get back to the mosque
someday soon.
Tyler Davis is an educator living in Yangon. He
is formally trained in Linguistics and currently
researches a Chin language called Sizang. This
piece is an edited version of a blog post from his
personal website:
w EEKEND | Senior Citizens
How COVID-19 deterred me from
learning Urdu
Bhojpuri Speaking Area, under the creative commons licence on Wikipedia.
The author and the groom at a blended Telugu and Bihari
Indian wedding. Photos: Supplied
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