Mind Your Language

It’s not only English that matters

At a function held in Delhi recently, Vice-President M Venkaiah Naidu urged Indian citizens to speak more in their own languages. “I always tell people one should never forget your mother, motherland, native place and mother tongue.” The Vice-President went on to add, somewhat ominously, “Those who forget cannot be called human beings.” (PTI). Even when he was the Union Minister for Information & Broadcasting, Naidu had stressed that English was given way too much importance and both matru bhasha and rashtra bhasha are relevant.

In these politically charged times, it’s easy to read a criticism of English by someone in the government as having an ulterior, Sangh-driven agenda. It needn’t be either-or, one or another, when it comes to languages. Speaking fluent English is a staggering advantage that can’t be quantified. However, there is something profoundly tragic about losing touch with our native tongues. I recently saw Mughal-e-Azam, the grand theatre production based on K Asif’s legendary film, where every dialogue is dreamy poetry: “Tahkhane ke bhaari darwaze talvaron se nahin, taqdeeron se khula karte hain.” To my embarrassment, I found myself struggling to fully comprehend old Hindustani and Urdu.

Director Feroze Khan was clearly aware that his patrons, especially the under-40s who had spent over Rs 5,000 per ticket, don’t communicate in such delicately lilting Urdu. So, either side of the stage had massive screens with English subtitles.

India appears to be divided into people who struggle, valiantly, to learn English and never succeed, and those who learn it so well that they forget their mother tongue. Indian parents instinctively speak to babies and toddlers in their own languages, which magically changes the day they enter a big school. Gloomily enough, just a few years later, those very children need Hindi tutors. A vast majority of disenfranchised Indians correctly believe their way out of destitution is by learning the Queen’s language. It’s a heartbreaking ambition because the only way to learn a language is to speak it — a huge handicap for first-generation learners who don’t have anyone to practice with at home. This dichotomy has been satirically explored in films such as English Vinglish, and more recently, Hindi Medium, which portrays how language does, indeed, divide society. English stands for progress while everything else threatens to keep you shut out of the mainstream narrative.

In what is now start-up folklore, Vijay Shekhar Sharma — the founder of PayTM — has talked a lot about how he struggled at the Delhi College of Engineering since he came from a Hindi-medium school. Disillusioned at his slipping grades, he eventually stopped attending classes. Other than the fact that it’s shocking that people should feel oppressed by not speaking a language that wasn’t their own to begin with, a lack of linguistic diversity slowly disintegrates our sense of self, who we really are. Sad will be the day when one can’t enjoy a joke in Punjabi or Hindi or appreciate the unforgettable script of Mughal-e-Azam. If an individual’s identity is made up of place, language and history, it begs the question on how we could possibly live more authentically by forgetting one third of ourselves.

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