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A Hindi podcast shows English is not the only language of ideas

Puliyabaazi, an award-winning Hindi podcast, completed five years this month. Its founders tell us why Indian language content is essential for rational discourse

Puliyabaazi was founded by tech entrepreneur Saurabh Chandra and public policy researcher Pranay Kotasthane. It was recently joined by writer-cartoonist Khyati Pathak
Puliyabaazi was founded by tech entrepreneur Saurabh Chandra and public policy researcher Pranay Kotasthane. It was recently joined by writer-cartoonist Khyati Pathak

A ‘puliya’, in many Hindi-speaking states of India, refers to bench-like structures built outside the house where people sit around, usually in groups, to talk, banter, gossip and while away their precious leisure hours. Puliyas represent a space where politics is disentangled, new ideas presented, and global problems made local. The podcast Puliyabaazi took off from this concept five years ago to host in-depth conversations on politics, public policy, technology, philosophy and current affairs. Founded by tech entrepreneur Saurabh Chandra and public policy researcher Pranay Kotasthane, it was recently joined by writer-cartoonist Khyati Pathak. Lounge spoke to Kotasthane and Chandra to find out more: 

Neither of you uses Hindi as a language to work in, so why a Hindi podcast? 

Like all Indians, we cherish our multilingual superpowers. But around five years ago, the two of us realised our multilingualism was superficial. We could chit-chat effortlessly in conversational Hindustani on movies, politics, and the mundane. But as soon as the conversation became technical, we inadvertently switched to English. The inability to communicate ideas, concepts and metaphors in Hindi bothered us. So began a quest for a medium to discuss complex ideas and concepts from public policy, technology, and philosophy in Hindi.

Also read: English publishing in India is finally discovering the world of Hindi literature

What were the barriers to doing this?

While we were avid consumers of English podcasts and had also recorded a few, a podcast in Hindi hadn’t crossed our minds. The imposter syndrome was a significant barrier. Neither of us spoke shuddh Hindi. Beyond the classics and newspapers, we had never read politics, science, or philosophy in a language other than English. Another concern was that Google Translate couldn’t rescue us if we fumbled in an audio recording. 

Then we thought, Jaane Bhi Do, Yaaro, what was there to lose! Two crucial strengths of the podcast medium helped us launch quickly. First, the setup cost is low. Unlike a video channel, we didn’t need a presentable face, a studio, or animation skills. We only required headphones, an open-source digital audio editor, a podcast hosting account, and VoIP call software. We also decided that a remote-only setup was the only way to keep the podcast running. The second killer feature was the ease of distribution. You won’t find a YouTube video on Vimeo unless you upload it on both platforms, but podcasts are discoverable across all podcasting apps.

For the first few episodes, we were like Dev Anand: the two of us had to produce, direct, record, and edit. But soon we partnered with IVM Podcasts, which takes care of the production and editing, and we could focus on high-quality conversations.

How do you get around presenting certain ideas that don’t translate well into Hindi or any non-English language, for that matter?                                                                     

We figured early on that an Indian-language podcast required a different approach on two counts: novel vocabulary presentation and conversation structure. We had to decide how sharp we wanted our language skills to be. Instead of refining our Hindi skills, we forced ourselves to record on demanding topics such as Artificial Intelligence, Union Budgets, or Jammu & Kashmir politics in Hinglish, thereby pushing the boundaries of our Hindi vocabulary. Searches for Hindi translations of technical terms often threw up textbookish phrases that were either difficult to grasp or sounded strange. So we figured out a few ways around it. 

Sometimes, we tried to create new phrases for technical terms on the fly using simple word combinations. For instance, you won’t find the podcast name Puliyabaazi in any dictionary. Puliya is a small raised platform or a culvert where friends gather to dawdle. Puliyabaazi could thus mean a casual conversation on everything from the hyperlocal to the transcendent. In another case, instead of referring to the Preamble of the Indian Constitution as a Prastaavana, we just called it a mukhda — the first part of a classical composition. The logic was that listeners would easily understand a familiar word's meaning in a new context.

At other times, this strategy didn’t work. Because Hindi doesn't have a flourishing "pop science" scene, we often hit a wall trying to translate technological phrases. For such words, we devised an alternate approach — briefly define the concept in simple Hindi upfront and continue using the English term after that.

Hindi also has an additional layer that complicates vocabulary presentation. Should one use Sanskritised Hindi or commonplace Hindustani? We were clear that we would speak Hindustani - a language that borrows extensively from Sanskrit, Persian (Hindi itself being a Persian word), and Urdu, yet having a distinct identity. Phrases that combine words with Sanskrit and Arabic/Persian roots—such as Aman ki Asha—were endearing to us.

Did you find a lack of content in Hindi explaining certain events and thoughts?

We always had this question: at which level should we pitch our conversations? Here, we found a big gap in the existing non-fiction content. On the one hand, there were lakhs of 101 explainers on YouTube in Hindi. It seemed to us that listeners' choice of consuming non-English content was being interpreted lazily as a lack of intellect. On the other hand, there were rigid, formal conversations one comes across on Doordarshan that could put you to sleep faster than listening to someone read out a telephone directory. So we made it a mission to create high-quality discussions with all their extant complexities in an easy-going style. The idea was to talk to a listener, not talk at them.

Our focus has always been to discuss ideas rather than news. This increases the shelf life of every episode. As as new people discover the podcast, there is a long library that is waiting for them. While this sacrifices immediate virality of the latest outrage cycle, it has created a long tail of value. 

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