Paresh Gangwani, a Rajkot-based company law consultant didn’t think twice before choosing an English-medium school for his firstborn, Navya, aged five. For the Gangwanis, their mother tongue, Sindhi, was ‘good enough’ for day-to-day family conversation, but not more.

In Ahmedabad, Nishith and Khushi Notani, the parents of a nine-year-old daughter, are no different and see English medium as ‘the need of the hour’. “Schooling in Sindhi medium would restrict their (kids’) exposure to Sindhi culture alone, which is not going to benefit them in their professional career,” says Nishith, a self-employed professional.

This lack of interest from young parents has resulted in the two remaining government-run Sindhi-medium schools shutting in Ahmedabad. Three privately-run Sindhi-medium schools survive, but are feared to be on the brink of closure. The Sindhi language, which has traditionally used the Arabic script, is facing its toughest test, as newer generations deem the script difficult to learn and not worth the effort.

An ancient tongue boasting luminaries such as Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai, the renowned ‘Shakespeare of Sindhi’, now stares at a gloomy future, spoken within the confines of home. “This isn’t a recent phenomenon. There has been a fall in the number of students in Sindhi-medium schools for the past 25 years. The changing preference for English medium can be seen as a social transformation. English, or even Hindi, is more acceptable than Sindhi for schooling,” says Jagdish Bhavsar, chairman, Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) School Board. The last remaining Sindhi-medium government school was closed down last academic year.

AMC School Board, which runs 455 schools with 1.49 lakh students enrolled, has started converting its Sindhi-medium schools into English medium.

“We started our first English-medium school in 2002-03,” Bhavsar says, adding that the number has since grown to nine, and is likely to touch 12 next year. Other language schools, meanwhile, are on a decline as student numbers fall drastically.

Among the schools the board currently runs, 303 are Gujarati-medium, 67 Hindi-medium, 63 Urdu-medium, 10 Marathi and three Tamil-medium. Among those shut down in the past five years were Malayalam- and Telugu-medium schools.

Fading words

Rajkot-based Gangwani points out that his father’s was the last generation that studied in the Sindhi language using the Arabic script. “I never studied in Sindhi, nor will my kids, because the facilities are no longer available in our town. Also, it gives no guarantee of success,” he repeats.

In Gujarat, except in a few places like Ahmedabad, Vadodara and Adipur in Kutch, Sindhi trust schools have all but disappeared. At those that remain, Sindhi is taught as just another subject. As the schools have a large number of non-Sindhi students, the objective of ‘promoting Sindhi culture and language’ somewhat takes a backseat in the larger business of education.

The handful of private schools that do have a strong Sindhi connect, however, have few takers and are gradually forced to turn to English medium, with Sindhi taught as a subject.

“The new generation finds the script difficult to learn. Even when learnt, it has limited application in society,” says Harish Kakwani, former director of IGNOU’s Gyan Vani educational FM radio station in Ahmedabad.

He sees a silver lining in the form of competitive exams, where Sindhi holds out promise as a scoring subject for those choosing it. “Thanks to everyday family conversations in Sindhi, the students are good at the language. They just need help with the script. Still, there are not many Sindhi aspirants at competitive exams,” he rues.

He recalls that about 30 years ago, Ahmedabad alone had nearly 12 Sindhi-medium schools. Today there is none. “People started feeling inferior after studying in Sindhi schools. It is out of this inferiority complex that Sindhi families turned to other language schools including Gujarati, Hindi and English mediums,” he reasons.

Scattered legacy

Those in the know say that Sindhi’s existential problem runs way deeper.

Since independence, the community has been battling huge odds to keep its language and script alive. After escaping the horrors of Partition, large sections of the community arrived as refugees and struggled to find a foothold in their adopted land.

The struggle for livelihood often trumped the desire to preserve and promote their indigenous culture and language.

“The Sindhis migrated from Sindh in Pakistan. They found shelter in different parts of India. Wherever they settled, they adopted the local language, culture and festivals as their own. They wanted to achieve financial progress, and they knew that wouldn’t be possible through Sindhi language. As a result, today Sindhi literature, language and script all face the danger of becoming extinct,” says Harish Bhagchandani, managing trustee, Sindhu Sewa Samaj, a leading trust in Ahmedabad.

Kakwani, who finds mention in the eminent personalities list of the National Council for Promotion of Sindhi Language (NCPSL), echoes this, “This is a big tragedy with the Sindhi community. They never got their own land (after the Partition). They became scattered all around the country. This made Sindhi a stateless language. Hence, Sindhis in different states tried to identify themselves with the respective local languages.”

According to estimates from the Indian Sindhi community, their numbers cross one crore and they are spread across the world, with the largest concentration — nearly 70 lakh Sindhi speakers — in India.

Muted hopes

Vasudev Gopalani, President of Sindhi Panchayat — an organisation representing over 950 Sindhi families — is a disheartened man. Few Sindhis are interested in learning their mother tongue, whether to immerse in its rich literature or even for a handy purpose such as gaining an edge in competitive exams. “Our libraries remain vacant, with hardly any visitor in weeks. The entire community is going after the mass trend — of modern learning. But in doing so, we are threatening our very identity,” he cautions.

Kakwani is among those who have not given up hope. He runs a public trust named Vision Sindhu Children Academy, which attempts to connect the younger Sindhi generation to their roots through the performing arts. Efforts are on to make the Sindhi language easier to learn for the new generation. This includes switching from the Arabic to the more commonly used Devnagari script and even Roman script to entice overseas Sindhis to learn the language.

“This would make the language more acceptable among the youth,” says Kakwani.