They have crossed oceans to come to Agra, but not to see the Taj Mahal.
Instead, they are sweating it out in north India’s notorious April heat in their tiny hostel rooms, fingers still tinged with colours of Holi, deciphering the Devanagari script and Munshi Premchand.
They want to master the official language of a fast-growing economic giant.
For the first time, all 70 seats in Agra’s Kendriya Hindi Sansthan are full with foreign students and 30 could not be admitted because there were not enough hostel rooms. Last year, the number shot to 55 from the usual 20-25, and this year, 100-odd qualified.
This is the only institute for foreign students who get the government’s annual scholarships to study Hindi. The scholarship, offered by the HRD Ministry, covers return airfare, accommodation in Agra and a stipend of Rs 3,000.
“This year, we could not admit those selected because of a space crunch. We are working on it. Hopefully, next year, we will be able to accommodate more. We have already built a new hostel for girls,” said Professor Shambhunath Shaw, director of the institute.
This year, the institute had become a mini collection of nationalities, said Shaw. Students have come from Bulgaria, Croatia, Slovakia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, Mongolia, South Korea, Chad and Japan; some want to start a Hindi school in Slovakia to cater to demands, others to work or run businesses here, and still others for the love of Bollywood.
“I used to study economics, but shifted to Hindi because India has a great economic potential. I thought about learning Chinese but there are already many in Korea who speak it while almost no one knows Hindi,” said South Korean Sungjun Kwak (24), who wants to work in some Korean company here after completing two more years in the university back home.
Barbora Jombikova, a 22-year old Slovakian, wants to start a Hindi school back home. “There isn’t any place to learn Hindi in Slovakia but demand is high now because many Slovakians want to do business in India or with Indians,” she said. “It cannot be learnt from the books. You have to live with the people and speak to them.”
The diploma students, slogging for their final exams that begin on April 10, have a few complaints as well. Many say the Rs 3,000 stipend, from which Rs 1,000 is cut for food, is paltry and the government should reassess it.
“It was even less, till we decided to increase it from Rs 2,500. But we have budgetary constraints and cannot go beyond that although we would love to,” Shaw admitted.
Also, the Hindi taught here is more academic than colloquial, students say. “When we speak, people react with surprise. We wish it involved more spoken skills,” said a student, who did not want not to be named.
The director assured that the institute was trying to reduce stress from literature-based teaching to a more market-friendly Hindi, “because our market is why these people are here”.