I saw this joke on Whatsapp the other day:
A potato was interrogated by the cops. After 3 hrs of torture, it gave in and said “Main batata hoon! Main batata hoon!”
If you got that joke, you’re probably an Indian. If you didn’t, I hate explaining jokes but here goes. In Hindi ‘Main batata hoon” means “I will tell” whereas in Marathi it means “I am a potato”.
We speak a crazy number of languages in India and not too many speak Marathi but everyone who has heard of the batata vada (most everyone) would have caught this pun like a shot. We wear our cultural diversity lightly most of the time.
But once in a while the whole language issue blows up. This was very confusing to me growing up as a Tamilian in New Delhi. When people would be shocked that my siblings and I did not attend the Tamil school and had not been taught to read or write in Tamil. How did it matter, I would wonder. No one around us read or wrote in Tamil anyway. We could speak and understand. Why was that not enough?
As a grown up, I can see some merit to their thought process. Language is definitely more than a means of current communication. It is a means to communicate with your own history. A link with your past. And if you think history is only kings and invasions, think again. I wrote once about the formidable Meenakshi Ammal. If someone had not translated her masterpieces to English, I would never have learnt to cook the smallest thing that I had grown up eating. Or books! I have never read Ponniyin Selvan or the Thirukural. It is amazing to know that my mother tongue is a language that originated in 500BC and is still alive and relevant! But the wealth of literature and theatre and cinema are largely inaccessible to me. That’s a pity!
It is hard to obsess over that these days with so many cross cultural marriages. My husband is a pahadi who grew up in Hindi-speaking Uttar Pradesh. My sister got married to a man who has two mother tongues! His mother being from one state and his father another. At least three of my cousins are married to people from Andhra Pradesh and one to someone from Kerala. Fluidity and flexibility of language is very much a part of my family’s mental make-up. We often switch between three languages, sometimes in one sentence! But how or why to force the children to walk only one road?
It has been on my mind of late. It all started while in the market in Titisee when a Pakistani man reproached me for speaking to my son in English. He was all hamara desh and hamari zubaan which is very sweet to see but nothing could more forcefully represent that we were not the same desh than his ignorance of how many Indians there are for whom Hindi simply is not their first language!
Then I thought some more about it when the Metro boards were defaced for carrying Hindi signage. And then when a man lost a limb wading into a crocodile infested pool because the warning was in Kannada (It should really have been skull and crossbones). And finally with all the unrest in Catalonia.
Language was invented as a means of communication. A link. When did it become a divide?
Strangely, my guess is that it is globalisation that is to blame. The more we mix and the more we homogenise, the more desperately we want to establish our uniqueness. The Pakistani in Titisee, Hindi was so important to him! Important enough to make a countryman out of someone who was traditionally supposed to be held in dislike, only because he was away from home. In a place surrounded by a different culture and language, he didn’t mind clutching even at straws. For me in my own country, not such a big issue!
When our gated communities start resembling suburban America and you cannot tell one city apart from another, we start giving undue importance to the little stuff. Paneer in Bangalore is not like in Delhi. Oh but our idli is softer! And language becomes a similar casualty.
This is also what I felt instinctively when I saw people in hijabs in Paris and when I saw Islamic flags all over Kerala. Was the leaning on symbols fanaticism or simply a desperate bid to hold on to an identity being swept away by larger forces?
If we can globalise and still localise, not trample over the little guy when we make big changes, we can maybe calm down and get over that prickly identity thing. And I have no better ideas!
Finally, on a lighter note here’s the hugely funny and trilingual Biswa Kalyan Rath’s take on language. Oh and this is adult language – discretion advised!