Saturday, November 5, 2011

On the pitfalls, the possibilities, and the potential of language(s)

“Mamma, your knees are looking”:
(Treya, age 4 years and some months)

The Incomprehensible Indian

Ours is a multi-lingual family.
Which means that when I speak to Treya in English, she will probably reply in Hindi. When Snehanshu asks her something in Bangla, she will often respond in English. And when Snehanshu talks in Hindi, I take the opportunity to practice my Bangla.

Of course, there are times when we all converse in the same language, but rarely do we achieve perfect synchronisation. Or do I mean coordination?

Anyhow, most Indian households will relate to this situation. Our daughter at 8 years, reads English extensively, Hindi a little less fluently - and the Bangla alphabets. Schools today give strict injunctions to read story-books in English (not any other language, please note), but conversations between students are generally conducted in a sort of Hindi. Back home, grandparents will almost certainly ensure that the family still speaks together in Marathi, Oriya, Malayalam, Telegu, Kashmiri or any of the other languages they have grown up with. That sounds pretty impressive. Except that, since there is no time or incentive to read in regional languages, and since despite several decades of trying hard, we have not been able to make ourselves English (or American) - we end up using a ‘cross-over’ of words and grammar from many different languages. Very amusing and exciting, and as analysts will tell us, it shows the vibrancy of Hindi/English/Bangla/Gujarati etc. in India. Even better, it reveals how cosmopolitan, pan-Indian and ‘global’ we are.

To me, it seems this is basically poor justification for bad language, and I don’t mean cuss words. Of course, I cannot be held up as a shining example of what the good Indian should sound like. Having more or less forgotten the smattering of Tamil, Punjabi, Sanskrit, and Hindi studied as Second and Third languages in different parts of the country –I unfortunately seem to be most fluent in English. That may be a result of the vast collection of books in that language (presumably left over from the days of the Raj) in the army libraries, which I must confess, I devoured eagerly. Or the fact that this was the only language common to the different parts of the country that we found we could converse in - whether in the markets of Mettupalyam or Mhow. Or maybe this is the outcome of the training given to us by the Irish nuns in the cantonment schools. I remember the soft-spoken receptionist at one of the architecture offices I worked at, observing with a smile that even when I began any of my sentences in Hindi, I invariably ended up finishing them in English. Since then, I have consciously tried to be consistent about speaking in one language at a time.

It is not a wholly successful attempt. But I try. So, we have designated exclusive ‘Hindi Time’, ‘English time’, and ‘Bangla Time’ at home. Of course, it is not possible to discuss profound truths about architectural and spatial relationships in Bangla or Hindi, as we explain to Treya. And I cannot really express myself coherently in Bangla when I am displeased with the performance of my cook. So, often the rule gets amended to, ‘Reply in the language that you are addressed in’. Which probably explains why we all race to start a conversation. Not surprisingly, this can get a little exhausting. So, the rule at meal-times, is ‘no conversation please’.

It is difficult for most of us to think in more than one language. Snehanshu’s father, when he came to New Delhi from Kolkata to help in setting up the All India Fine Arts and Crafts Society, couldn’t understand at first why his head used to ache all the time – till he realised that instead of thinking and speaking in Bangla, he was sub-consciously constantly translating in his mind from Bangla before speaking in Hindi or English. All of us invariably think in our ‘native tongue’ and translate into the languages we have learnt later. The reason that Treya still confuses ‘yesterday’ with ‘tomorrow’ may be because, in Hindi the word for both is the same! And only those who have grown up speaking Hindi will realise (perhaps after a brief moment of blankness) what she meant when she once asked me with perfect seriousness in English: “Has your throat got up?” With repeated practice, we eventually grow out of such hazards of literal translations and the nuances between ‘Dikh rahein hain’ and ‘Dekh Rahein hain’. As when Treya, noting that I was going to answer the door in shorts instead of the long skirts I normally wear, primly pointed out to me, “Mama, your knees are looking”!

There is an Akbar-Birbal story about a visitor who arrives at the Emperor Akbar’s court and challenges anyone present to correctly guess which is his actual ‘mother-tongue’, and which part of the country he originally hails from. The entire court tests him, but he speaks all languages with the diction and fluency of a native. Akbar then turns to Birbal as his only hope. What does Birbal do? At night, when the tired visitor is in deep slumber, Birbal gets a servant to rudely rouse him from sleep (in one version of the story, by throwing water; and in another one by repeatedly making a din outside the window). The exasperated visitor responds by cursing aloud involuntarily in his mother-tongue. And Birbal triumphantly announces his discovery in court the next day. The story is as much about the ability of certain people to ‘pick up’ languages with ease, as about Birbal’s cleverness, as about the fact that in moments of great emotion – anger, joy or grief – we revert to the language we are most familiar with: invariably the language we have first learnt, traditionally at our mother’s knee – hence our mother-tongue.

Birbal’s plan may not have worked today. Certainly not in my case. I often wonder what language I would have shouted out in. Probably Hindi? Though it is primarily a combination of Hindi and English that I have grown up with. So, I may have yelled out in English and finished the phrase in Hindi or vice versa. But my mother-tongue is Garhwali. And originally my family – if I trace it by its patriarchal connection, which is usual in my part of the country – is from Kumaon. My father, apart from Hindi and English, is however most fluent in Gorkhali, because after leaving home at the age of fifteen to join the National Defence Academy, it was the Gorkha Rifles that he was commissioned in four years later. And till he was in his battalion, the language for communication amongst officers and soldiers was almost exclusively Gorkhali. Which makes me think how much more exciting – and confused – domestic conversations would be if I knew Kumaoni, Garhwali and Gorkhali.

That marriages in India are no longer confined to the same caste or region, should mean that we are enriched by a greater understanding of different cultures. But it seems to be working the other way these days. Instead of children knowing the customs, literature, languages or traditions of the regions of both their parents, they end up knowing neither - only Hindi and English. And so we have the great urban Indian, dressed up in clothes advertised on television or elsewhere (so what if they are designed for completely different climates and cultures?) speaking a combination of ‘Americanese’ and Hindi slang, getting larger and larger on a diet of Coke and McDonald’s. Their children mouth identical dialogues, believing only in the possibilities of Barbies and Ben-Ten like toys, unaware of the fast-disappearing plural and diverse traditions of the country they inhabit. As Ashis Nandy points out: ‘So, it is not only globally that the diasporas are producing one-dimensional national cultures, such national cultures also have clear links with pockets of national culture that are crystallizing within the countries’. [1]

Languages play a vital role in ensuring the continuation of local cultures. Each language ensures that personal, familial, local, regional memories and traditions pass on. It preserves memories and conjures up entire visual scenes, and retains the memory of local responses to climate, architecture, space. The word ‘roak’ cannot simply be translated as a plinth or a platform or a stoop. It is not just an architectural element in the town-houses of North Kolkata. It contains the entire experience of the habitual gathering of neighbourhood-men lounging there interminably, playing chess and cards; their animated arguments; their indolently watchful gaze guarding the neighbourhood from strangers.
This is why, when we do not understand or speak in the languages of our grandparents, we not only lose out on a different universe of sound and text, we also lose out on their connection with a unique and distinct landscape. This is why, while I insist that my students in the post-graduate course of design and architecture, have to work harder at expressing themselves coherently and correctly in spoken and written English, I also urge them to explore the ideas in their own literature, mythology, and folk-songs.

All languages have different personalities – they open up doors to newer worlds. The single Garhwali children’s rhyme and the Kumaoni folk-song I know, transmit a lilt and cadence, at once peculiar to the Central Himalayas and common to all mountains. In one, the conversation between a child and a dove, evokes equally the speech and the pace of mountain-folk, and the soft sight and sound of their birds. The other celebrates the image of the beloved Mountain-Goddess, Nanda Devi even as the song flits in and out of a recollection of the particular berries that fruit in different seasons in a part of Kumaon, including the tiny ‘kaphal’.

So, sooner or later I will learn Garhwali and Kumaoni, dialects thought they may be conventionally understood as, and read the Ballad of Malushah in the original and not in an English translation. Meanwhile, these days our afternoons are punctuated by my halting Bangla renditions of UpendraKishore Roy Choudury’s stories for children written a hundred years ago. I look forward to the day when it will not merely be silver-fish who will investigate Treya’s grandfather’s extensive collection of Bengali literature. Then she will read aloud to me and I will lie back.

[1] p. 138, Talking India, Ashis Nandy in conversation with Ramin Jahanbegloo, OUP New Delhi, 2006

1 comment:

  1. My mother tongue is Hindi, and I often use it, but English is certainly the language I think in, most times. I find it much, much easier to read in English too, something I'm very ashamed of, but I still can't find the inclination to read more Hindi literature (my fiction Hindi reading is limited to some Premchand my mom got me to read years ago).

    Most people in college though are very familiar with their mother-tongues and traditions, even if their families have been living in metropolis for ages. We have a great mix of Marathi, Malayali, Tamil, Punjabi, Bengali, etc. -speaking people making up our batch.