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.

Fast forward to 2019. I needed a new case for my glasses and I also wanted some spray and a microfiber cloth to clean them with. Knowing that there are tons of glasses shops where I live, I walked down the street and spoke to one young man (a Telugu) who gave me just what I needed. He was very friendly and happy to have met a foreigner who spoke Burmese. He offered to introduce me to his uncle, Sanjay, which I accepted. Thus began the friendship between Sanjay and me.

Sanjay is older than I am, but he always enjoys my company. Before COVID-19 hit, I would frequently visit his store and talk about just about anything. Sanjay isn’t college-educated, but he enjoys reading and learning about various 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 and I at his wedding in 2019
Sanjay and I at his wedding in 2019

Sanjay invited me to his wedding and as it was a free day for me, I was willing and able to stay for all of the festivities. He was very grateful for it. I knew how much of a strain Indian weddings are on the bride and groom, due to my experience at my friend Deep’s wedding in India, two years earlier (Although Deep’s wedding lasted about 24 hours).

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 members have ever been to Bihar. Unlike Sanjay’s Burmese-speaking Telugu family, though, his wife’s family commonly spoke to each other in a dialect of Hindi called Bhojpuri. (ADDENDUM: It has been pointed out to me by linguist Jean Pacquement that Bhojpuri is not considered a dialect of Hindi. My apologies if I’ve offended any reader.)

Bhojpuri Speaking Area — From Wikipedia: MetalBrawler / CC BY-SA (

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 airport 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 indeed a dialect of Hindi, it is only well-understood by the Bihari and not by any other Hindi speaker. Sanjay told me, “if you want to learn standard Hindi, it’s best just to learn Urdu. More people will understand you if you spoke 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 time. I also saw them taking their young children with them for Qu’ranic and Islamic studies. I decided if I wanted to learn Urdu, that would be the place to start.

I biked over there and some men, not sure of what my intentions were, directed me to put my bike with some other bikes against the wall. They then offered me to sit down with them, which I did. I told them who I was, where I live, and my job. I then handed out my business cards, which everyone there gladly took. I then told them that I wanted to learn Urdu and most of the men sitting there, aged 50-70, told me that they only spoke a little bit. A little is still better than nothing for me, so I figured they were low-balling what they actually know.

My prediction came true the next day. A man came up to me and tried speaking in English about his career as a driver and how he drove rich foreign people around back in the day. After he spoke to me, he turned to another guy and started speaking to him in perfect Urdu. Note that the man being spoken to was one of the men that told me he didn’t speak much the previous day.

They continued chatting on until a Burmese man in a cab drove up saying that he was looking for Zaw Win to purchase a car from. They said, “just a minute! We’ll call him!” At that moment the man who had talked to me about being a driver got out his phone, dialed a number and said something along the lines of, “ao bhaiyaar, ek adhmi gaadi main aogah (come on, brother, some man has come in a car).” After that statement, he shouted back to the cab driver, “he’s coming, he’s coming,” in Burmese.

Zaw Win did indeed come. But he did not look like a typical 70-year old Urdu-speaking Burmese Muslim. To me, he just looked Burmese. This is because his father was Gujarati Muslim and his mother was Shan. He then sat down and continued chatting with the men beside him in Urdu. “This guy is sayar-gyi (the guru), when it comes to Urdu,” they said. “He could teach you.” And he did agree to teach me.

For a while, I would walk down to the mosque, usually at 6pm around the time of the last daily prayer. I would brave the mosquitos and wait for the men to exit the mosque (many Burmese and Indian mosques don’t have a prayer section for women). Zaw Win would then come out and sit next to me or invite me to a teashop. We’d then go with several other men and drink tea and they would teach me words and phrases.

  • chai piega? Have you drunk your tea yet?
  • khaana khalia? Have you eaten yet?
  • bahut bariyaa hai! Very good

And other basic phrases were what I started out with. The problem was that I was still balancing a job and I wasn’t free to go to the mosque every day. In fact, I was just in negotiations with Zaw Win about how best to go about learning when COVID-19 started spreading here.

I often ran into one of the men from the mosque, Thein Win, at a teashop near my house. I told him one day to please explain to Zaw Win that the reason I haven’t been coming to the mosque is because most of the men there are old and thus in the risk group for COVID-19. He completely understood and agreed, “yes, please don’t come. Many of us also aren’t going, either.”

So, that’s how my person-to-person studies got put on hold. I’ve contemplated continuing lessons by watching YouTube videos and reading books, but I haven’t really started that yet. I do want to continue, though, and I hope to be able to get back to the mosque someday soon.


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