One day, while strolling through a busy street in Bengaluru
Person: So, how many languages do you speak?
Me: Six, including German.
Person: That’s good. You can survive anywhere. Especially, when people force you to speak a language. If you don’t, many would rather beat you up and look down upon you.
Me: Ah! I see you don’t like learning languages.
Person: Not by force. Nobody cares. Even a smile and being nice can help build bonds.
Me: Well, I think it helps to get the job done faster. Languages are more effective in the bonding process.
Person: See, you are one of them. You look down upon those who don’t learn languages. Not everybody has the skill to do so. My five-year-old daughter, my three-year-old nephew and one-year-old son included.
Me: (Shocked and prepared to surrender) Your children will learn. But hey, I know you love winning arguments. So, I shall rest my case.
Flashback - Haveri, 2012. My friends and I decided to do a case study on farmers’ suicides in the region, situated approximately 12 hours away from the Maharashtra border. Did we seek the assistance of a translator? Yes. Was it worth the time? No. We decided to bid him adieu and two of us put our Kannada comprehension skills to the test. To our surprise, it worked and the locals responded to our requirements. They loved us and we grew to like them too.
Personally, I believe that languages are the key to everything. Be it culture, politics, economy, psychology anything. Our comprehension of the written and spoken word, and our association with certain dialects impact our personalities. Unfortunately, languages are often seen as a burden and not a strength.
‘Don’t need it, can live without it’
Many take it for the granted when they do not have to speak a dialect as often as they could. Some even deem it to be a matter of pride for not learning the language and still surviving. Call me judgemental, but I think it is a loss. Sure, there are translators EVERYWHERE! But if the trend continues, might want to consider mastering cave drawings at the earliest!
Is ignorance a sin?
I grew up in two distinct societies situated in southern India.
A considerable part of my childhood was spent in the Dakshina Kannada (aka South Canara) region of Karnataka – this includes districts like Udupi, Mangaluru, Kundapur, among others. As a result, festivals like Paryaya or the occasional Yakshagana recitals became an integral part of my life. For which, an understanding of Kannada was essential. This was in addition to the Hindustani classical music concerts or even the grand Holi celebrations. It is no surprise that I appreciate the works of U R Ananthamurthy, T.S Nagaraja Shetty or even Girish Karnad.
My teenage years were spent in Kerala. There is clearly a lot more to the state than backwaters, rubber estates and the lush green hill-tops. With about 64 dance styles, a wide variety of music, and a vast range of literary works, Kerala never ceases to amaze me. The works of MT Vasudevan Nair, Vaikom Mohammed Basheer or Ezhuthachan provide interesting insights into the lives of the state’s people and have been a testimony to the true essence of God’s Own Country. Interestingly, radio stations in Kerala play songs composed in Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, and English. A wide variety indeed!
Honestly, had it not been for a classmate (a Muslim from Kashmir) and a childhood friend (who hailed from a family of Jammu-based Kashmiri Pandits), I would have never known the truth behind the state. For when they were with us, we spoke the same language, celebrated the same festivals and were family in our way. Imagine, a Kashmiri Pandit who spoke Kannada like a local resident, and my classmate learning Tamil phrases to converse with our college peon!
Today, I see only precious few who dare to try learning a language apart from their native tongues. Nobody is to blame, and no one deserves any praise. Whatever happened to learning for the fun of being able to laugh together with your friends? Or have we decided to be friends with those who only understand what we do?
My upbringing taught me that a mere ‘Namaste’, ‘Vanakkam’, ‘Namaskara’ or even ‘Nomoshkar’ helps you bridge that invisible gap between two or more communities. It never required violence nor did it demand any firm stances.
So, what concerns me now?
With fewer people knowing different dialects, questions have been raised regarding one’s identity and the subsequent way of life.
Yes, the two are connected at several levels. If one were to observe society closely, you would see how different dialects result in different perceptions of life. Often, these views are influenced by the literature or the phrases they have become accustomed to. For instance, Pooram , a word in Malayalam is often used to depict festivities. Then again, colloquially, the term also implies confusion or chaos or a heated debated that does not always involve violence (rather an outburst of abusive language).
Languages are identity cards in their own right. It adds to one’s personality and does enable one to be more adaptive and understanding.
Hence, there was a lot of commotion when a certain political leader stood firm on terming 'Hindi' as the 'National Language'.
In the 2011 Census report, it was stated that over 19,000 languages are spoken in India! This implies, that one of the world's largest democracies is also one of the most unique cultural hubs.
India is a country of sub-communities and this phenomenon will only become more prevalent in the following years. In fact, I hope our society could see the rise of new linguistic groups especially after the scrapping of Article 370 by the Central Government.
Then again, I am worried. While many criticised the move to be politically driven, my fear is that Kashmir and its people would also be party to this strange yet non-sensical feud in the name of languages and culture. After all, Kashmiri and Dogri have always been part of India's unique demography.
Thus, the imposition of one official language, (which, incidentally, is also a combination of dialects like Bhraj, Khadiboli and more) is unjust. Agreed, that is spoken in several parts of the country. But does the knowledge of Harivansh Rai Bacchan's Poetry or Munshi Premchand's Godan help you survive in Dhahara, Bihar or in Hurda, Rajasthan? After all, that is what schools and colleges teach the students.
Do we need to master a language?
Sure, a mother would be protective, if her child is unable to speak a language she or he is not familiar with. Then again, children learn faster than you think. Before you know it, they are as fluent as fluent can be.
If we can laud a foreigner’s attempt at mastering an Indian language, that we are most familiar with, what prevents us from preserving some of that for ourselves?
Tackling rebel with force is never wise. Moreover, it is worrisome to see how the conscious exemplified resistance towards anything different is being passed from generation to generation.
If such is the attitude of the 21st century educated Indian, who claims to be a travel bug and is worldly-wise, the future of a ‘peaceful co-existence’ will seem bleak. In all honesty, nobody cares if you ace the language. But everyone adores you for trying.