Interview with Madhumita Mehrotra

This article was originally published by the Monterey County Weekly.

The year was 1980, and Madhumita Mehrotra was competing in the 400-meter dash at the All India University Athletic Championships. Until this point in her life – her late teens – athletics had been everything to her. An attentive student more interested in performing as a dancer, playing basketball and running track than in spending hours in the classroom, she harbored dreams of competing professionally until she twisted her foot on the track, a freak injury that had doctors telling her that her competition days were over.

Some might have been deterred by this setback, but instead, Mehrotra saw an opportunity. If she couldn’t compete as an athlete, she could do the next best thing: become a teacher, and instill a love of competition in her students. She enrolled in a program to get a bachelor’s degree in physical education at Lucknow University, and found herself facing competition of another kind: she was one of just four women out of a class of 40. But a lifelong mantra of accepting challenges found her finishing at the top of her class, and finding work as a physical education instructor at one of India’s premier all-girl high schools.

Walking onto campus on the first day at Loreto Convent, Mehrotra was so nervous her legs were shaking. She resolved to wear the mask of a strong and strict instructor, demanding a high standard of respect and attentiveness from her students. Thirty-odd years later, she still wears that mask, only now she teaches the Hindi language – and culture – to students at the Defense Language Institute.

Weekly: How did you go from teaching physical education in India to teaching Hindi in Monterey?

Mehrotra: Back in India, I was a television personality for sports programming, presenting in both English and Hindi. I provided color commentary and interviewed athletes – if I couldn’t play, this was the next best thing. It gave me such satisfaction to see others doing well at the sports I played. When we came to America, I worked in radio [presenting in English and Hindi] for a short while. There, I met someone who recruited me to instruct at the Foreign Service Institute, teaching language, song and dance, and organizing cultural events. Then a job opened up at DLI. That was in 2006.

Tell us a little bit about where you came from.

My parents made me who I am today. My father didn’t want me to just stay home and cook – he wanted me to make something of myself. He’s my ultimate guru. My mother taught us to dance Kathak, the classical dance from Uttar Pradesh, and I’ve been performing since I was 4 or 5. Kathak means story-telling, and it originally interpreted the mythology of Krishna, the Indian god – but really, you can tell any story. I use it today to teach about my culture, making sure I choose music Western audiences will connect with.

I’ve seen you perform, and it’s such a methodical dance. Is there a specific meaning to each move?

Kathak is a difficult dance because the footwork is very precise, and you have to maintain your balance while spinning. The expressions and gestures depict flowers, animals, the sun, the moon, the falling of the rain, a woman’s cry – these tell the stories of love and peace as well as the small events in life.

What’s the most important thing about teaching a language?

Immerse yourself in the culture, because culture and language go hand in hand. To be a good linguist, you have to know the values, the norms, the food, the dress, the music – and the dancing.

What kinds of culture do you impress upon your language students?

I wear salwar kameez every day [pictured], a traditional outfit. I also teach that you must respect knowledge at all times. Respect your books, because books are symbols of knowledge. Stand when a teacher enters the classroom. In my culture, there is a strict line drawn between the student and the teacher. Even today, when I meet with some of my gurus back in India, I feel overcome with admiration.

Do you wish you could have been a professional athlete?

I never wanted to be a teacher, but sometimes destiny has something else in store for you. I get such a sense of satisfaction from watching my students succeed – when they come back and show their gratitude, there’s no better feeling.