21 June, 2016

Pardon My hindi

If all Indians spoke just the one language, you might need to designate it official status. But the nation is too diverse and decentralised to suggest that embracing one language will improve employment prospects.

Roughly a week ago, Union minister Jitendra Singh made an announcementthat the government was going to undertake measures to popularise Hindi in the Southern and North-Eastern States of India, a move, according to the minister, which would make the language a common medium of communication for the whole country, and improve young people’s chances of landing better corporate jobs. As expected, the news drew varied and mixed reactions, from flak to favour. The first thing that came to my mind when I read the news, though, was a very specific scene from the 80s tamil film,Indru Poi Naalai Vaa.

One of the main characters, in a bid to get closer to the girl of his dreams, decides to learn Hindi from her father, a Hindi teacher with a short fuse. The closer he gets to the father, he thinks, the closer he gets to the girl, and so his lessons begin. “Ek gaon mein ek kisaan rehta tha”, says his teacher, urging him to repeat after him. “Ek gaon mein ek kisaan raghu thaatha” he repeats. “Rehta Tha”, points out the teacher, and “Raghu Thatha” comes the reply. This goes on a few more times until the teacher loses all his patience and gives his student a sound walloping.

The reason I recalled this scene was because it represents my own relationship with Hindi. I am the student, who, despite multiple attempts to learn the language, have only ended up with a sound walloping.

Hindi was my second language in school from Standards I to III, a choice that my parents made to ensure that learning Sanskrit — that great mother language which gave rise to not only a thousand other languages but also to every student’s Std X marksheet — would be easier (we had the Sanskrit option only from Class IV). As an 8-year-old, I learned letters, a few words and the very basics of how gender worked. The letters I retained because I went on to learn Sanskrit, but I couldn’t say the same for the grammatical aspects of the language. By the time I passed out of school, my Hindi was at a level where I could bargain with shopkeepers and know when to cry during a Karan Johar film, but nothing more.

It wasn’t that I disliked the language; after all, I listened to a lot of Bollywood music and generally imbibed a lot of Hindi pop-culture (I drew the line, however, at Splitsvilla) just like everyone else in my generation who grew up in Chennai. The reason my Hindi didn’t improve was because I had no opportunities for applying the language anywhere. I lived and studied in Chennai, where Tamil and English were more than enough to get you around and to carry a conversation, and your grasp of a language — whether it’s Hindi or French — is only as good as your ability to apply it.

The truth is that our country has no national language. If the purpose of this exercise really is to “connect” our great country together, why aren’t measures being taken to promote southern languages up north?

Jitendra Singh’s announcement included a comment about how Hindi would give young people an edge in their jobs. This did ring true for me, once. During the early days of my Chartered Accountancy apprenticeship, I was once sent on audit to a bank in Mumbai. The audit was a prestigious assignment, one that even the most thorough and hardworking apprentices were overlooked for. I was selected because of my half-baked Hindi. The selection gave me great drive, so much so that when we landed at the branch of the Bank we were supposed to audit, I decided that I would only speak in Hindi.

My accent was good and my grammar was barely passable, but it didn’t matter because it turned out that most of the staff could speak English, and were able to provide the requisite information without us having to twist ourselves trying to figure out whether “statements” was Pullinng or Sthreeling. In fact, a senior staff member to whom I had spent half hour blathering about in Hindi asked me where I was from and politely told me that he was Tamil himself. We got what we wanted without the effort and language skills that we thought the job would demand. The audit firm I worked in decided to go back to their old policy of allocating assignments based on who was best and most capable for the job, as opposed to Hindi proficiency.

I never made an effort to perfect my Hindi afterwards. For, like I said before, I had no use for it, living in Chennai. Occasionally I would come across people who were outraged by my indifference and presented the argument that Hindi was the national language and that it was my duty as an Indian citizen to learn it.

The truth is that our country has no national language. It has official languages, one of which is Tamil. If the purpose of this exercise really is to “connect” our great country together, why aren’t measures being taken to promote southern languages up north? Surely knowing Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam or Kannada (or at the very least, knowing that there are four different languages that are spoken here) would help them when they travel to the South for opportunities? Why must connections be only one way?

I had travelled to Barcelona, San Sebastian and Bilbao, in Spain, on holiday the previous year. Apart from the fact that they’re both beautiful places with lively people, they’re both also centres of linguistic battles that is happening in Spain. In Barcelona, Catalan is the language of choice, as opposed to the Castillan Spanish that is spoken in — say — Madrid, and the people of Barcelona also identify themselves as Catalan.

The regional parliament had voted for the secession process to begin in November 2015, although it was eventually suspended by the Prime Minister for being ‘unconstitutional’. Nevertheless, there is strong support for Catalonian independence. Similarly, San Sebastian and Bilbao, belong to the Basque Country which spreads over the north of Spain and the southwest of France. The Basque National Liberation Movement, which has been going on for three decades now, seeks to achieve independence of the Basque speaking territories from Spain and France. The issues in Barcelona/Catalonia and in Basque Country are more complicated than these few lines above, but make no mistake that they arose because the people of that region identified themselves differently because of their language and culture.

At this juncture, I feel compelled to point out that Spain is a country of roughly 46 million people and is a little larger than Rajasthan. Here’s a country whose population is lesser than Tamil Nadu’s, a country which only speaks four languages in all, having not one, but two language-based secession movements!

India speaks twenty two officially-recognised languages. The Census of 2001 revealed that there are 234 identifiable mother tongues that are spoken in our country, a little more than ten times the number of official languages. We are a country of a billion with two hundred tongues, and yet, we are one. That the Union Government could even think that they could condense India’s vast and diverse linguistic history and heritage into one “official” language, is not only farfetched and impractical, but is also against everything that our country stands for.

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