Let me explain. Hindi, like many other languages, is gendered, and as usual in such languages adjectives have to agree with the gender of the object they are describing (verbs do too, in complicated ways that I haven't quite got my head round yet). The linguistic gender of people, unsurprisingly, follows their biological gender.
However, whereas in Spanish one would naturally refer to a man as "alto" and a woman as "alta", for instance, in Hindi you can't do that if you happen to be a man. If you are talking to a woman - or even about a woman - and you use the feminine ending, this apparently implies that you are showing a sexual interest in her. Just by drawing attention to the fact that she is a woman, you're basically seen to be leering at her. Instead, you have to use the masculine plural ending.
For the (male) foreign student of Hindi this opens up a minefield of social perils. In the UK, you just have to make sure you respect personal space and watch how long you hold eye contact for, and you're unlikely to be seen to be crossing any lines. Here, say "i" instead of "e" and you're making unwanted advances (which in my case would be ironic as well as annoying).
I have to admit I find this rather hard to fathom. As one of my classmates put it, why go to all the bother of having gender in the language if you're then going to deny the fact when it comes to talking about people?
But of course languages aren't designed, they just evolve to reflect the society in which they are used - and Hindi is spoken in a culture where the sexuality of women is an enormous taboo. The fact that merely acknowledging a woman's femininity is seen as inappropriate behaviour is astonishing to me on one level, but entirely unsurprising on another - it comes from the same place as the rules that say men on the metro must give up their seats for women. There is an old-fashioned idea of chivalry here that is hard-wired into the mindset and even the language itself.
If that was all it was, it might be dismissed as interesting and harmless - a way to make sure that behaviour between the sexes remains appropriate. But actually, there is a much, much darker side to all this that I will write about another time - the "Slut Walk" is coming to Delhi next Sunday and that seems to be the day to talk about gender issues.
For now, I'll just concentrate on remembering that I have to talk about women as though they were a group of blokes - or risk acquiring an unlikely reputation as a ladies' man.